PAJU, South Korea— As a medical student in North Korea, Lee Gwang-jin said he treated his fever and other minor ailments with traditional herbal medicines. But severe illness could mean trouble as hospitals in his rural hometown lacked ambulances, beds and even electricity that was sometimes needed to treat critical or emergency patients.
So Lee was skeptical when he heard recent North Korean state media reports claiming that such so-called Koryo traditional medicine is playing a key role in the nation’s fight against COVID-19, which has killed millions worldwide.
“North Korea is using Koryo medicine a lot (for COVID-19) … but it’s not a sure remedy,” said Lee, who studied Koryo medicine before he fled North Korea in 2018 for a new life in South Korea. “Someone destined to survive will survive (with such medicine), but North Korea can’t help others who are dying.”
Like many other parts of life in North Korea, the medicine that the state says is curing its sick people is being used as a political symbol. That, experts say, will eventually allow the country to say its leaders have beaten the outbreak, where other nations have repeatedly failed, by providing homegrown remedies independent of outside help.
“In South Korea, patients with cerebral haemorrhage, hepatocirrhosis, liver cancer, ascites, diabetes and kidney infections don’t come to traditional clinics. But in North Korea, traditional doctors treat them,” said Kim, who resettled in South Korea in 2002 and now works for Seoul’s Well Saem Hospital of Korean Medicine.
North Korea’s leading Rodong Sinmun newspaper has recently published several articles praising herbal medicine and acupuncture for curing fever patients and reducing the aftereffects of COVID-19 illnesses, including abnormal pains, heart and kidney problems, nausea and coughing.
The newspaper also published calls by leader Kim Jong Un to embrace Koryo medicine. Other state media reports said the production of Koryo medicine has quadrupled since last year. At the same time, a vast amount of modern medicine has also been speedily delivered to local medical institutions, a claim that cannot be independently verified.
North Korea’s nominally free socialist medical system remains in shambles, with defectors testifying that they had to buy their own medicine and pay doctors for surgeries and other treatments. They say North Korea’s advanced hospitals are concentrated mainly in Pyongyang, the capital, where the ruling elite and upper-class citizens loyal to the Kim family live.
Some experts predicted that the COVID-19 outbreak could cause dire consequences in North Korea because most of its 26 million people are unvaccinated, and about 40% of its people are reportedly undernourished. They speculate that North Korea is likely underreporting its death count to prevent political damage to Kim Jong Un.
Lee, the former North Korean medical student, said people in Hyesan didn’t go to hospitals unless they were extremely sick.
“When they are moderately ill, they receive acupuncture or Koryo herbal medicine. They trust Koryo medicine, but they also don’t make much money, and Koryo medicine is cheaper than Western medicine,” Lee said.