Foreign expert notes flaws in North Korea’s medical system

Medical System
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a hospital to console a traffic accident victim. / Image: Yonhap News Agency

Training for mid- to high-level managers at hospitals in Ryanggang Province to discuss the region’s medical system included participation by a foreign expert, Daily NK has learned. The expert’s presence suggests that North Korea may be trying to attract external aid for its aging medical infrastructure. 

“Directors and departmental heads from hospitals throughout Ryanggang Province participated in the training in Hyesan from August 12 to August 17,” a Ryanggang Province-based source told Daily NK on August 30. “Experts leading the training pointed out that North Korea’s medical system is in very poor condition.” 

The source noted that a medical expert from Australia ostensibly affiliated with a UN agency took part in the training, along with an interpreter. “The expert explained what kind of support the UN could provide to improve medical expertise and facilities in the country,” the source said. 

According to a 2018 report published in Korean entitled “The State of North Korea’s Public Medical Care System,” by Lee Man-ju, a researcher at the Korea Biotechnology Industry Organization (Korea Bio), North Korea’s medical system collapsed in the mid-1990s due to the country’s economic difficulties. The regime has since failed to rebuild its medical infrastructure, and hospitals are in such poor shape that they often lack disinfectant and anesthesia. 

North Koreans generally acknowledge the poor state of the country’s medical system, which means that mid- to high-level managers in the country’s hospitals understand the issues more than anyone else. Daily NK sources say that there were likely ulterior motives for holding the training. 

North Korean officials appear to be angling for aid from the international community by opening up access to the country’s poor medical facilities to outsiders, according to the sources. 

“Following the Great Leader’s (Kim Jong Un) rise to power, the government has revealed many of the negative aspects of the country previously hidden to the outside world,” said another Ryanggang Province-based source. “Officials seem to think that if they show outsiders what’s really going on inside the country, then they can receive aid.” 

Surprisingly, North Korean officials at the training even gave the foreign medical expert a chance to speak freely. 

“The Australian expert spoke honestly and said that North Korean doctors are unskilled and expressed concern whether such doctors working in such poor medical facilities would be able to save lives,” the first Ryanggang Province-based source said. 

North Korean officials may have intended to ‘shock’ hospital managers attending the training, while also aiming to gain the expert’s trust to help advocate for increasing aid to the country. 

There is a possibility, however, that the expert was not from the UN, but rather a representative of an international aid group. 

Radio Free Asiareported on July 31 that Christian Friends of Korea(CFK) had plans to send a team to North Korea in August along with six shipping containers of aid. 

Recently, the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee on North Korea (formally named the Security Council Committee Established Pursuant to Resolution 1718) has allowed the import of humanitarian aid into North Korea, which may lead to an increase in activity by international aid groups in the country. 

According to the committee’s website, the activities of CFK, the Eugene-Bell Foundation, and Première Urgence Internationalehave been exempted from sanctions on North Korea. As of this year, a total of 21 UN organizations and international agencies have been granted exemptions to the sanctions on North Korea.

Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to