North Korea holds lectures focused on cancer prevention

A medic administers a vaccination to a child in North Korea
A medic administers a vaccination to a child in North Korea. Image: Yonhap News Agency

As part of its “sanitation period” in March and April, North Korean health officials are conducting health education tours focused on the prevention of various illnesses and cancer. The health education campaign is being warmly welcomed by residents because doctors from major hospitals are taking part as lecturers, according to sources inside the country.

“Municipal and provincial-based hospitals have been conducting tours throughout the Hyesan and its surrounding counties from mid-March to talk about high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer prevention along with how people can maintain their general health,” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK.

“Local residents are very interested in the lectures because it’s uncommon for doctors to talk directly to them about cancer.”

Doctors rarely diagnosed deaths by cancer in North Korea until the late 1990s. There were few medical facilities in the country to diagnose the disease, and most ordinary people didn’t have the money to pay for medical care. Cancer diagnoses and treatments were limited to North Korea’s small upper class.

North Korea has a number of well-known medical centers that treat and research cancer, including the Ponghwa Treatment Center and Pyongyang Medical University Hospital, the Breast Tumor Research Center in the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital, and the Radiation Medical Research Center at the Pyongyang Medical Scientific Institute.

Compared to Pyongyang, North Korea’s provinces have very few medical facilities and generally fail to diagnose and treat cancer. North Korea promotes “free medical care” as one of the society’s strengths, but the reality is that the lack of medical supplies means people have buy medicine from local markets to treat their ailments. South Korea’s public health authorities report that some 30% of North Korean citizens suffer from a contagious disease.

North Korea’s donju (noveau riche) are showing more interest in health these days and health-related common sense is spreading as people visit family members in China. This has also led to increased interest toward cancer among middle-aged North Koreans.

“The doctors explained during their lectures that men consume a lot of alcohol and cigarettes and the increase in artificial manufactured foods is the reason for increased rates of cancer and other diseases,” reported a source in North Hamgyong Province.

“They also explained that families who enjoy financial stability are using a lot of oil and other artificial flavor enhancers and this is negatively impacting their health. The lectures emphasized that people need to cut down on cigarettes and alcohol, take just enough vitamins, and avoid too much salt, and that eating Japanese angelica tree juice is one way to treat cancer.”

He concluded that while the lectures help people understand how to prevent cancer to a certain extent, “most North Koreans aren’t well nourished so the doctors telling people to ‘eat enough’ shows how removed they are from realities on the ground.”

Kang Mi Jin
Kang Mi Jin is a North Korean defector turned journalist who fled North Korea in 2009. She has a degree in economics and writes largely on marketization and economy-related issues for Daily NK. Questions about her articles can be directed to