Taking Pulse of Herbal Medicine

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

Herbal medicine occupies a very prominent place in the North Korean health care system.
In fact, it would be but a minor exaggeration to say that nowadays the North Korean health care system is largely built around traditional herbal medicine.

But this was not always the case. In the early years, until the mid-1950s, herbal medicine was looked upon with disapproval.

It did not appear ‘scientific’ enough, and the Soviet educated doctors saw it as a potentially dangerous superstition.

The first signs of the coming change in attitude were in 1954 when the licensing system for herbal doctors was first introduced.

But the revival of herbal medicine began in earnest in April 1956, when the North Korean cabinet of ministers accepted Decree No. 37, which envisioned the incorporation of herbal medicine into the official medical system. At the same time, Kim Il-sung made a very positive reference to herbal medicine in his lengthy speech delivered to the KWP Third Congress. By the end of 1956, there were 10 herbal medicine centers operating across the country, and by 1960 the number had reached 332.

I think it was not without good reason that this sudden revival of the medical tradition took place in 1956. This was when the North began to steer itself away from its Soviet patron, whose new policy of de-Stalinization met with growing disapproval in Pyongyang. It was also the time when nationalist trends began to grow in the North _ partially because nationalism served the interests of Kim Il-sung and his group, but also because it resonated with the feelings and world view of common Koreans. This created a fertile soil for the rejuvenation of hitherto neglected traditions. It is not incidental that in later eras the initial rejection of herbal medicine came to be blamed on the ‘factionalists’ _ that is, people who did not share Kim Il-sung’s nationalism and his drive for heavy industry and a powerful army at all costs.

And there was another dimension as well. We have been accustomed to thinking of herbal medicine as more expensive than its Western counterpart, but back in the 1950s the opposite was the case. Generally, East Asian medicine, which relied on local herbs, tended to be cheaper and this mattered in a poor country with limited resources.

Around the same time, herbal medicine was encouraged by the South Korean authorities as well. They also saw it as a cheap palliative, a substitute for the “real” Western medicine which only a few South Koreans could afford.

And, last but not least, the basic ideas of herbal medicine resonated quite well with Kim Il-sung’s new policy of selfreliance.

In a sense, herbal medicine was an embodiment of self-reliance in health care.

Thus, the 1960s was a period of triumphal advance for Eastern medicine in the North. For a while herbalists were trained in junior colleges, but from 1960, Pyongyang medical college opened a traditional medicine department. A number of research centers were created with the task of fusing the achievements of Western and traditional medicine. From 1960, a state evaluation committee began to operate, and in that year 239 North Korean herbalists became “Eastern medicine doctors, first class,” while 1,495 had to satisfy themselves with their inferior standing of “Eastern medicine doctors, second class.”

Of course, the growth of herbal medicine was accompanied by claims about wonder drugs and miraculous discoveries, to which the Stalinist regimes were so vulnerable (suffice to remind ourselves of the Lysenko affair in the USSR, or the improbable claims of wonder harvests in Mao’s China).

But the domination of Dr. Kim Pong-han, North Korea’s Lysenko, lasted for merely six years. In 1960 he claimed that he had discovered a new principal type of centralized system in the human body, somewhat similar to a nerve system of blood circulation. There was much talk of this alleged discovery and related medical miracles, but from 1966 all references to Professor Kim suddenly disappeared from the Pyongyang press.

The subsequent decades witnessed a continuous growth in the herbal medicine endeavor, which frequently received direct encouragement and approval from the Great Leader himself (after all, Kim Il-sung’s father once was a part-time herbalist himself). The reasons for the policy remained the same, and even some statements by Kim Il-sung were remarkably frank.

In 1988 he said, “If we produce a lot of Koryo medicine drugs, it is good not only for curing diseases, but also for solving the drug problem, since it will reduce the importation of drugs from other countries.” More than a dozen colleges now train herbalists in the North, and from 1985 would-be Western doctors have also been required to take introductory classes in Eastern medicine.

Perhaps, in some post-unification world the North will become a major source of quality herbal doctors, and their presence will help to drive down prices for this service which many Koreans take so seriously. Who knows, but there are already North Korean herbalists working in the South.


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