North Korea's Dire Lack of Food and Health Care

July 15, 2010

Amnesty International released a disturbing new report today detailing the crumbling state of health care in North Korea.  The  report paints a bleak picture of barely-functioning hospitals void of medicines and epidemics brought on by malnutrition.

In addition, our researchers found that the North Korean government has been unable to feed its people and, in violation of international law, has refused to cooperate fully with the international community to receive food aid.

Thousands are estimated to have starved to death in North Korea as recently as February © Korea Press

Even though North Korea claims to provide healthcare for all, the latest estimate from the World Health Organization shows that North Korea spent less on healthcare than any other country in the world – under US$1 per person per year in total. In fact, many witnesses have stated that they have had to pay for all services since the 1990s, with doctors usually paid in cigarettes, alcohol or food for the most basic consults, and taking cash for tests or surgery. Because North Korea has failed to provide for the most basic health and survival needs of its people, many North Koreans bypass doctors altogether, going straight to the markets to buy medicine, self-medicating according to their own guesswork or the advice of market vendors.

Thousands are estimated to have starved to death in North Korea as recently as February this year after a botched currency revaluation. Crippling food shortages, exacerbated by government policies in North Korea, have caused widespread illness as well as people are forced to survive on “wild foods” such as grass and tree bark. Hwang, a 24-year-old man from Hwasung, North Hamgyong province, was homeless and lived alone from the age of nine. Foraging for wild foods was his only option to avoid starvation.

“I ate several different kinds of wild foods, such as neung-jae, which is a wild grass found in the fields. It’s poisonous – your face swells up the next day. Other kinds of grass and some mushrooms are also poisonous so you could die if you picked the wrong one,”

Without adequate aid, North Koreans have been resorting to adding grass or roots to existing foodstuffs to make food go further, such as mixing grass with ground corn to make corn gruel. North Korea was hit by famine in the early 1990s, resulting in the deaths of about a million people, followed by food shortages, which are still ongoing. Government policies significantly exacerbated this crisis. In 1995 the government finally made an appeal to the international community for food aid and assistance. But even after the UN and humanitarian aid agencies began distributing food and other essentials in the country, the government impeded their work on the ground, preventing them from accessing large segments of the population.

We’re urging donor countries to continue providing humanitarian aid to North Korea through the UN, and to base it on need and not political considerations. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) in North Korea is grossly underfunded, needing more donor support and political backing. Thousands are dying because of the lack of health care and food and North Korea needs far more international assistance to improve its public health infrastructure.