Typhoon Lingling
North Korean farmers in South Hwanghae Province cleaning up a damaged farm field after Typhoon Lingling in 2019. (Rodong Sinmun)

Efforts to mobilize labor for collective farms in South Hwanghae Province have gone into emergency mode after a recent spike in cases of tubercular lymphadenitis in the province.

This comes after another recent outbreak of acute intestinal infections.

A source in South Hwanghae Province told Daily NK on Friday that the state recently imposed quarantine measures to deal with the sudden spike in tuberculous lymphadenitis.

“Many people are leaking pus or blood from ruptured lymph nodes, particularly in the neck or armpit,” he said.

Tuberculous lymphadenitis is a swelling of the lymph nodes when mycobacterium tuberculosis invades the lymphatic system. Symptoms such as fever, loss of appetite or fatigue often accompany the disease. When lymph nodes become severely swollen, pus or blood sometimes drains through the ruptured skin.

Quarantine authorities are reportedly keeping a keen eye on South Hwanghae Province after sudden spikes in intestinal infections like paratyphus, typhoid fever and malaria, COVID-19 and now even tuberculous lymphadenitis.

In fact, personnel sent from the State Emergency Anti-Epidemic Command are conducting on-site investigations of the number of cases and the symptoms involved, but prescriptions and treatments are reportedly lacking.

Prior to this, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and first lady Ri Sol Ju donated their own household supply of medications to South Hwanghae Province when the intestinal diseases began spreading, while other leading officials like Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, and party department vice director Hyon Song Wol also stepped forward to transfer medications to the province. However, the source said only a handful of families have received medications supplied by the authorities. 

All the medications provided by Kim and other high-ranking cadres were made in North Korea, and included saline solution, fever medication, penicillin, streptomycin and traditional herbal medicines.

Though North Korean authorities trumpeted that it had provided priority supplies of drugs to South Hwanghae Province, many locals are unhappy because they have been unable to obtain the drugs.

People can obtain with relative ease locally made penicillin or streptomycin by Sunchon Pharmaceutical Factory from pharmacies. However, the source said the price of Chinese-made injections like levosulpiride — reportedly effective for intestinal infections — has gone through the roof, costing KPW 100,000.

The source said with drugs in short supply, people are turning to narcotics like opium.

“But they do nothing to lessen the symptoms of intestinal infections like paratyphus,” he said.

In North Korea, infectious diseases usually run rampant in June and July, when the rainy season begins. In the case of South Hwanghae Province, people are particularly at risk for waterborne diseases because the regional water and sewage systems are so poor and many families drink agricultural or industrial water.

“No water comes out, so many homes draw their drinking water from communal faucets, and sometimes, even earthworms come out of the faucet,” said the source. “When you put the water in a bucket, white powder or soil settles at the bottom. Since they boil and drink this water, they inevitably contract infectious diseases.”

Moreover, people mobilized for agricultural work on collective farms have to use unsanitary old-fashioned bathrooms or relieve themselves roadside, creating a very disease-prone environment.

As recently as last year, the authorities did not take detailed statistics on outbreaks and related cases, so even if diseases ran rampant, the government remained ignorant of the problem. However, this year, with quarantine authorities ascertaining daily COVID-19 case counts, the government is treating the situation seriously.

The problem is that as the spread of the infections has caused woeful shortages of laborers available for farm work in South Hwanghae Province, North Korea’s biggest breadbasket. If farming in the province runs into trouble, this could directly lead to a decrease in national grain production.

“Farms have gone into a state of emergency because there’s so little labor available,” said the source. “The military is helping with the farm work, bringing food trucks with them, but with not enough farm workers, the work is going nowhere fast.”

Translated by David Black. Edited by Robert Lauler.

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Seulkee Jang is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.