Some physicians in South Korea are working to understand the differences in healthcare across the DMZ and health issues North Korean defectors face, in preparation for eventual reunification — not easy when the medical tools Northern Korean physicians have are so drastically outdated and when support for reunification is dropping in the South. At Undark, Sara Talpos talks to the doctors trying to bridge these gaps.
The practice of medicine is sharply different in the two countries. In North Korea, the focus is on infectious disease and physical trauma, often caused by coal-mining injuries. Doctors learn only the basics of other diseases because specialized medicines and equipment — chemotherapy for cancer, for example — simply aren’t available.
Ko laughs when I tell him I’ve heard North Korean X-ray images are so poor that a South Korean doctor wouldn’t be able to understand them. “Yes, that’s true,” he says, sipping a cup of coffee. We’re meeting at Steff Hotdog, a fast-food restaurant located, somewhat improbably, inside Anam Hospital. “That’s because they don’t have X-ray film.” Instead, the doctor takes the patient into a dark room, where the patient stands between the X-ray machine and a translucent screen. Ko borrows my pen to illustrate. His doctor sits hunched over on a stool like Rodin’s “The Thinker.”
Bug-out bags, self-designed evacuation plans, stockpiles in the garage. Most Americans born in or after the 1970s have probably never thought much about these items. But ever since the Doomsday Clock, which measures how close the world is to a major anthropogenic disaster, was introduced after World War II, the public has kept a nervous eye on the likelihood of nuclear wars. With the cable news cycle’s predictable turn toward semi-obsessive coverage of North Korea and President Trump’s responses to the small nation’s nuclear program, fear has become a fixture in many households. Understandably so, as the Doomsday Clock now indicates the world is the closest it has been to disaster since 1953.
The urge to protect ourselves and control our fate is natural, but there’s no need to let nuclear angst run our lives. Through thoughtful examination of our nation’s history with nuclear weapons and the anxiety they bring, we can better understand these fears and work to address them.
Interviews with defectors also suggest that North Koreans are not serious consumers of marijuana. The drug of choice is, in fact, something much more pernicious: crystal meth.
Meth, known colloquially as eoreum or bingdu (both mean “ice”, a name by which the drug is also known in the US) is a drug unfortunately suited to the realities of life in North Korea: it is cheap, requires no elaborate equipment or specialist knowledge to make, and keeps the weary and hungry on their feet – at least until they become addicts.
Maybe I was hungry and saw the word “sushi” in the headline, but I was hooked the moment I started reading Adam Johnson’s bizarre, outlandish story about a Japanese chef who served North Korea’s supreme, “dear leader” Kim Jong-il. While it’s known that the dear leader had lavish habits and ruled with a firm grip on his country and confidants, Johnson also does a fantastic job of keeping the focus on the chef, who uses the alias Kenji Fujimoto. Fujimoto himself is a complicated character, a man who was willing to leave his family in Japan for an extravagant but dangerous life as one of Jong-il’s cronies. There are parties, death threats, beautiful women, Mercedes-Benzes, and more. It’s a great read.
Shin In Geun was born into Camp 14, a prison for political enemies of North Korea. His first memories were of executions, and he had come to hate the parents that gave birth to him knowing that their son would also remain a prisoner:
The guards taught the children they were prisoners because of the “sins” of their parents but that they could “wash away” their inherent sinfulness by working hard, obeying the guards and informing on their parents.
One day, Shin joined his mother at work, planting rice. When she fell behind, a guard made her kneel in the hot sun with her arms in the air until she passed out. Shin did not know what to say to her, so he said nothing.
“We all knew there was no hope for anything to get better in North Korea,’’ she told me. “Sometimes we’d say, ‘Hey, if we crossed the river we’d be in China, but there are too many soldiers.’ ’’ Song-hee also knew that, if she crossed the border, she could be picked up by the Chinese police and sent back to face sentencing in a labor camp. The customary term is anywhere from six months to three years. But her friend had a relative living in China, and contacts who knew the best places to cross. “I decided if I did not take this opportunity I might not have another,’’ Song-hee said.