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Amnesty International: The Crumbling State of Health Care in North Korea

July 15, 2010

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In the early 1990s, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) faced a famine that killed up to one million people in a population that at the time hovered around 22 million (the current population stands at 23.9 million).2 Food shortages and a more general economic crisis have persisted to this day. The government has resolutely maintained that it is committed to, and capable of, providing for the basic needs of its people and satisfying their right to food and a proper standard of health. The testimonies presented in this report suggest otherwise. The people of North Korea suffer significant deprivation in their enjoyment of the right to adequate health care, in large part due to failed or counterproductive government policies. These poor policies include systematic failure to provide sufficient resources for basic health care (North Korea had one of the lowest levels of per capital funding for health care recorded by the World Health Organisation in 2006). After nearly two decades, food insecurity remains a critical concern for millions of North Koreans. This has been compounded by the government's reluctance to seek international cooperation and assistance, which the government is obligated to do when it would otherwise be unable to ensure minimum essential levels of food for the whole population, and its restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian assistance. This delayed and inadequate response to the food crisis has significantly affected people's health.

Additionally, a currency revaluation plan in November 2009 caused spiralling inflation that in turn aggravated food shortages and sparked social unrest. In the first few months after the plan went into effect, the North Korean government exacerbated the situation by restricting the use of foreign currency, closing down food markets, and prohibiting small-plot farming. Many people died of starvation and many others lost their entire savings.

Amnesty International has documented how widespread and chronic malnutrition, which
suppresses people's immune system, has triggered epidemics and mass outbreaks of
illnesses related to poor diet. Interviews with North Koreans depict a country that professes to have a universal (free) health care system but in reality struggles to provide even the most basic service to the population. Health facilities are rundown and operate with frequent power cuts and no heat. Medical personnel often do not receive salaries, and many hospitals function without medicines and other essentials. As doctors have begun charging for their services, which is illegal under North Korea's universal health care system, the poor cannot access full medical care, especially medicines and surgery.

The interviews conducted by Amnesty International indicate that the North Korean
government has also failed its obligation to provide adequate public health information. As a result, most of the interviewees were unaware of the importance of seeking proper medical diagnoses or completing a course of medication. And, because many hospitals no longer supply free services or medicines (despite government commitments to the contrary), many people normally do not visit doctors even when they are ill.

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