North Korea promotes traditional medicine to combat COVID-19

PAJU, South Korea (AP) — As a medical student in North Korea, Lee Gwang-jin said he treated his fevers and other minor ailments with traditional herbal medicine. But serious illness could spell trouble because hospitals in his rural hometown lacked the ambulances, beds and even the electricity sometimes needed to treat critical or emergency patients.

So Lee was skeptical when he heard recent reports from North Korean state media claiming that so-called Koryo traditional medicine is playing a key role in the nation’s fight against COVID-19, which has killed millions around the world. the world.

“North Korea is using Koryo medicine (for COVID-19) a lot… but it is not a safe remedy,” said Lee, who studied Koryo medicine before fleeing North Korea in 2018 for a new life in South Korea. . “Someone who is destined to survive will survive (with that medicine), but North Korea cannot help others who are dying.”

Like many other parts of life in North Korea, the medicine that the state claims cures its sick is used as a political symbol. That, experts say, will eventually allow the country to say its leaders have beaten the outbreak, where other nations have repeatedly failed, by providing folk remedies, regardless of outside help.

As state media publish stories about the drug’s efficacy and huge production efforts to make more of it, questions are being raised about whether people with serious illnesses are getting the treatment they need.

The defectors and experts believe that North Korea is mobilizing Koryo medicine simply because it does not have enough modern medicine to combat COVID-19.

“Treating mild symptoms with Koryo medicine is not a bad option. … But the coronavirus does not only cause mild symptoms,” said Yi Junhyeok, a traditional physician and researcher at the Korean Institute of Oriental Medicine in South Korea. “When we think of critical and high-risk patients, North Korea needs vaccines, emergency care systems and other medical resources that it can use to” reduce deaths.

It has been more than two months since North Korea admitted its first coronavirus outbreak, and the country has reported an average of 157 fever cases per day in the last seven days, a significant drop from the peak of around 400,000 per day. in May. It also upholds a widely disputed claim that only 74 of the estimated 4.8 million fever patients have died, a mortality rate of 0.002% which, if true, would be the lowest in the world.

Despite widespread external doubts about the veracity of North Korea’s reported statistics, there is no sign that the outbreak has caused a catastrophe in North Korea. Some outside experts say the North could soon formally declare victory over COVID-19 in an effort to boost internal unity. North Korea can then emphasize the role of Koryo medicine as the reason.

“North Korea calls Koryo medicine ‘juche (self-reliant) medicine,’ treats it importantly and sees it as one of its political symbols,” said Kim Dongsu, a professor at Korea Dongshin University College of Korean Medicine. from the south. “North Korea does not have many academic and cultural achievements to advertise, so it is likely that it will actively spread Koryo medicine.”

North Korea officially incorporated Koryo medicine, named after an ancient Korean kingdom, into its public health care system in the 1950s. Its importance has grown considerably since the mid-1990s, when North Korea began to suffer a major shortage of modern medicine during a devastating famine and economic crisis that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Koryo medicine refers to herbal concoctions that sometimes include animal parts, acupuncture, cupping, moxibustion, and meridian massage. Such ancient remedies are also used in many Asian and Western nations. But while traditional and modern medicines work independently in those countries, North Korea has combined them.

Medical students are required to study both modern and traditional medicine in school, no matter what they major in. So once they become medical professionals, they can practice both. Every hospital in North Korea has a department of Koryo medicine. There are also Koryo hospitals for medication only.

Kim Jieun, a defector who is a traditional doctor in South Korea, said she majored in Koryo medicine at the northern school, but eventually worked as a pediatrician and intern doctor. She said that South Koreans generally use traditional medicine to maintain or improve their health, but North Koreans use it to treat various diseases.

“In South Korea, patients with brain hemorrhage, hepatocirrhosis, liver cancer, ascites, diabetes, and kidney infections don’t go to traditional clinics. But in North Korea, traditional doctors treat them,” said Kim, who resettled in South Korea in 2002 and now works for Well Saem Korean Medicine Hospital in Seoul.

North Korea’s leading newspaper Rodong Sinmun recently published a series of articles praising herbal medicine and acupuncture for curing fever patients and reducing the side effects of COVID-19 diseases, including abnormal pain, heart and kidney problems, nausea and cough.

The newspaper also published calls by leader Kim Jong Un to adopt Koryo medicine. Other state media reports said that the production of Koryo medicine has quadrupled since last year, while a large quantity of modern medicine has also been rapidly delivered to local medical institutions, a claim that cannot be verified formally. Independent.

North Korea’s nominally free socialist medical system remains in shambles, with defectors testifying that they had to buy their own medicine and pay doctors for surgeries and other treatments. They say North Korea’s advanced hospitals are largely concentrated in Pyongyang, the capital, where the ruling elite and upper-class citizens loyal to the Kim family live.

Lee, 29, who attended medical school in the northern North Korean city of Hyesan, hospitals typically charged patients for the use of electricity for a medical exam.

HK Yoon, a former North Korean doctor who fled the country in the mid-2010s, said her mid-level hospital in the northeast had no ambulance, no oxygen concentrator and only three or four emergency room beds. She said that she shared surgical equipment with other doctors and that her monthly salary was the equivalent of 800 grams (1.76 pounds) of rice.

“My heart aches when I remember the lack of surgical equipment,” said Yoon, who asked that his name be identified by initials only due to security concerns about relatives in North Korea. “When my patients were critical, I wanted to perform surgeries quickly. But I couldn’t do it because someone else was using the surgical kit, and I was worried about how soon I would be able to sterilize it and use it.”

Some experts have previously predicted that the COVID-19 outbreak could have dire consequences in North Korea because most of its 26 million people are unvaccinated and about 40% of its population is reportedly malnourished. Now, they speculate that North Korea is likely underestimating its death count to avoid political damage to Kim Jong Un.

Lee, the former North Korean medical student, said people in Hyesan did not go to hospitals unless they were very sick.

“When they are moderately ill, they only receive acupuncture or Koryo herbal medicine. They trust Koryo medicine but they also don’t make much money and Koryo medicine is cheaper than Western medicine,” Lee said.

Leave a Comment