[News Focus] Health risks that plague North Korea

By Jung Min-kyung

Defector‘s parasites offer hint at hard life of soldiers, ordinary people, while regime pours resources into weapons program

  • Published : Dec 17, 2017 - 17:40
  • Updated : Dec 17, 2017 - 17:44
Oh Chung-sung, the 24-year-old North Korean solider who dashed across the border last month, has not yet spoken about life in the reclusive state that he desperately wanted to escape.

But his body has offered some clues already.

Receiving treatment for the critical gunshot wounds he suffered during his dash across the border at a South Korean hospital, his health and dietary condition have provided a window into the North’s current hygiene and living standards.

On top of hepatitis B, doctors found parasites, coupled with kernels of corn, in the young soldier’s stomach.

The majority of North Koreans are believed to be deprived of proper nutrition and health care, with the ruling party spending money on its weapons development program instead.

Parasitic worms
Surgeon Lee Cook-jong describes the parasites found inside the body of a North Korean soldier at Ajou University Medical Center in Suwon, South Korea in November. (Yonhap)

“In my 20 years as a surgeon, I have only seen something like this in a medical textbook,” Lee Cook-jong, Oh’s surgeon, told reporters on Nov. 15. Lee reportedly discovered several parasites up to 27 centimeters long in the soldier’s stomach.

Such parasitic worms were common in South Korea as well 40 to 50 years ago, but based on recent governmental reports, the infection rate here dropped from 84.3 percent in 1971 to 2.6 percent in 2012.

The worms in Oh’s stomach are believed to be categorized as “soil-transmitted helminthiasis” or parasites transmitted through human feces-based fertilizers. Various media reports have shed light on North Korea’s shortage of chemical fertilizers and North Korean defectors to the South whose stomachs were riddled with parasites that mirrored those of Oh’s.

The little beasts are often linked to malnutrition in school-age children, as they absorb nutrients needed for mental and physical development, according to the World Health Organization.

The parasitic infections can be used as a yardstick in determining whether a country has proper hygiene and health care, as the infections can be easily treated with medication.

Three malnourished North Korean children, between the ages of four and five, sit on the floor of a nursery in North Korea in 1997. AP

Earlier this year, a United Nations report claimed 2 in 5 North Koreans were undernourished.

“Amidst political tensions, an estimated 18 million people across (North Korea) continue to suffer from food insecurity and undernutrition, as well as a lack of access to basic services,” the UN report said.

“Furthermore, 10.5 million people, or 41 percent of the total population, are undernourished.”

From 1994 to 1998, North Korea endured a nationwide famine, known as the “March of Suffering,” which caused the deaths of between 500,000 and 2.5 million people there, historians say. The collapse of the Soviet Union, heavy drought and flooding are believed to have contributed to the famine.

Today, average North Koreans continue to experience shortages of food and basic necessities from weak infrastructure to counter natural disasters. A series of international sanctions imposed on the isolated nation with an aim to curb its economic growth and the advancement of its nuclear technology is also viewed by some experts as factors that could hurt North Korean citizens in terms of well-being.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization earlier this year estimated the North’s early-season crop production to have dropped almost by one-third on-year.

A doctor with the Eugene Bell Foundation explains tuberculosis treatment to North Korean citizens. Eugene Bell Foundation

In 2014, about 5,000 North Koreans died due to tuberculosis, according to WHO.

The disease caused 20 deaths per 100,000 tuberculosis patients in North Korea in 2014, a rate more than five times that of the South, noted the UN health agency. It estimated nearly 110,000 tuberculosis patients in the communist country in 2014.

The Eugene Bell Foundation pointed out that 4,000 to 5,000 new multidrug-resistant tuberculosis cases occur annually, in a recent press conference in Seoul. The organization, which focuses on providing tuberculosis treatment to North Korea, stressed regular checkups and aid supplies were necessary measures in combating the disease.


Malaria-infected mosquiotoes at a testing lab. (AP)

The number of malaria patients in North Korea has been steadily declining for four straight years, but still remained at 4,890 in 2015, a WHO report released earlier this month showed. The number tallied 21,850 in 2012.

The deadly disease spread through mosquito bites is common near the Demilitarized Zone that separates the North and the South.

The number of victims infected with vivax malaria, which is common near the DMZ, spiked from May to October, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A total of 601 cases were identified, with 294 among soldiers.

Overall, in areas with high transmission of malaria, children under 5 years old are particularly vulnerable to infection, illness and death -- accounting for more than 70 percent of all malaria deaths.

Although the exact number of fatalities is uncertain, malaria continues to pose a serious threat to North Korean children due to the isolated nation’s inability to arrange relevant health programs.

By Jung Min-kyung (