More Help Needed to Improve NK’s Public Health

Korea Times
Lee Jin-woo

A middle-aged American doctor who grew up in South Korea has stressed that it’s time to move on to helping North Korea with public health issues.

“North Korea’s food situation is at least better. We need to move on to public health issues including rebuilding the North’s nine provincial and 200 county hospitals,” John A. Linton of Yonsei University’s Severance Hospital in Seoul told The Korea Times in an interview on Monday. The 47-year-old doctor heads the hospital’s international health care center.

Linton, who is well-known for his Korean name Yin Yo-han and thick South Jeolla Province accent, proposed a three-stage medical support program for North Korea from the South Korean government.

“Number one, we need to help them with a vaccination program, which should be followed by supplies of diagnostic equipment,” he said. “The final stage should be an exchange of doctors between the two Koreas.”

He said North Korean doctors need basic diagnostic equipment _ ultrasound and x-ray machines, and clinical pathology supplies _ as well as more operating theaters.

“You have to have a healthy population in the North, for them to survive and become competitive enough to receive economic finance and business opportunities.”

He hoped that large-scale medical support to the North on a regular basis would be discussed during ministerial talks between the two Koreas in the near future.

“Nobody can argue with health care,” he said. “North Korea has been an enemy, but now at the same time they are brothers. Even if they are an enemy, you must help them.”

Linton, who visited the North 17 times between 1997 and 2003 to help eradicate tuberculosis in the Stalinist state, said it should be South Korea, not the United Nations or the World Health Organization (WHO), that needs to take the lead in helping the North.

“You have to be very, very careful with the U.N. and WHO. They treat the two Koreas as two separate countries differently,” he said. “Eventually policy should be looking towards unification. South Koreans should take the lead.”

Asked whether he is a big fan of South Korea’s engagement policy toward Pyongyang, dubbed the `Sunshine policy,’ he said he supports it wholeheartedly. Linton, however, emphasized the need to guarantee transparency in the process.

“We should not encourage some of the North Korean leadership as middle management is very corrupt. We should not reward corrupt people there. That’s not for us that’s for North Korea.”

His dedication toward helping the North was initiated by his mother, who worked to eradicate tuberculosis in Suncheon in South Jeolla Province for some 40 years. She decided to donate ambulances to North Korea in 1997.

“When we got there in Pyongyang, we suddenly received a special request from North Korea asking for assistance treating TB throughout the whole country,” he said. “We visited the entire country while helping them fight TB.”

In his autobiography published last year, Linton recalled his unforgettable experiences as an interpreter during the bloody Kwangju pro-democracy movement in May 1980.

He served as a translator to people who occupied the provincial capital against the then military regime led by former President Chun Doo-hwan.

“Immediately following this experience, I was labeled as an insurgent ,” he said. “The American embassy in Seoul asked me to leave Korea, just for translating for three to four hours for reporters.”

He said his experience in Kwangju changed his personal life and made him understand what injustice is and how dangerous newspapers are.

He said such a great sacrifice should never ever happen again on the Korean Peninsula.


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