Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea has made some effort to modernize its medical infrastructure by expanding specialized facilities such as the Ryugyong General Ophthalmic Hospital and introducing a “long-distance medical system,” similar to a remote medical service.
Daily NK sources in the country say, however, that most of the country’s provincial hospitals are dilapidated and that the regime’s efforts to modernize its medical infrastructure are nothing more than superficial and limited to Pyongyang and other major cities.
“General hospitals located in regional areas suffer from poor conditions even though they are state-run,” said a North Hwanghae Province-based source. “From the outside they look clean, but they are humid and dark inside. Patients end up getting even sicker there.”
Patients are also susceptible to various infectious diseases during their stays. Many North Koreans prefer to purchase drugs from local markets and self-medicate, or head to private (and likely unlicensed) doctors for a diagnosis, rather than go to local hospitals for treatment.
Local markets sell aspirin, painkillers, blood pressure medicine and cold/flu medicine. Most of the drugs sold at local markets are smuggled in from China or manufactured by private citizens in North Korea and are thus not officially sanctioned by the North Korean government. Consumers of these medicines can experience unexpected side-effects as a result. Recently, the North Korean authorities have moved to crack down on the sale of these medicines due to the dangers they pose.
Local hospitals in North Korea also have issues with dilapidated medical equipment, making it difficult for doctors to properly diagnose illnesses.
“There’s just no medicine at the hospitals. That’s the major problem,” said a separate source in North Hwanghae Province.
“People are using medicinal plants to treat their illnesses instead.” The source also noted that medical equipment such as sterilizers and other testing machines are aging, with the majority dating back to the 1960s.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears interested in improving the country’s medical infrastructure. During a meeting focused on the work of the Central Committee held at the 7th Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party in 2016, Kim called for the country’s leaders to “accept methods to diagnose and treat [illnesses] in line with the trends of modern medical development” and that the “quality of [North Korea’s] medical services, including emergency medical services, must be improved.”
He also called for the country’s pharmaceutical and medical equipment factories to be modernized so that appropriate medical supplies and modern equipment could be produced.
“The North Korean leadership knows that there’s a demand [by the people to improve the country’s] hospitals, but they just don’t have the ability to improve anything,” said a source in South Hwanghae Province, who then asked rhetorically, “The state isn’t able to guarantee a steady supply of electricity even for surgery rooms, so how can they even think about producing modern medical equipment?”
She further noted that hospitals are often in perpetual darkness due to the lack of electricity and doctors have to use battery-powered lamps on their heads while conducting surgery.
Surgical rooms suffer from particularly poor conditions. The rooms have heating pipes to allow heat to enter the room, but they lack basic medical equipment. “There’s no electricity, so doctors can’t even think about conducting surgery at night,” she said.