As a medical student in North Korea, Lee Gwang-jin said he treated his fevers and other minor ailments with traditional herbal medicine. But serious conditions could mean problems because the hospitals in his rural town lack ambulances and beds, and sometimes the light necessary to care for patients in critical or emergency conditions.
So Lee remained skeptical when he heard recent reports in North Korean state media that so-called Koryo traditional medicine has been important in the country’s fight against COVID-19, which has killed millions of people around the world.
“North Korea is using Koryo medicine (for COVID-19) a lot, but it is not a safe remedy,” said Lee, who studied Koryo medicine before fleeing North Korea in 2018 to start a new life in South Korea. South. “Whoever is destined to survive will (with this kind of medicine), but North Korea cannot help others who are dying.”
As with other aspects of life in North Korea, medicine that the state claims is curing the sick is being used as a political symbol. That, experts say, will eventually allow the country to say its rulers have beaten the outbreak, against which other nations have repeatedly failed, by providing home remedies independent of foreign aid.
As the state press publishes stories about the medicine’s effectiveness and the massive production efforts to make more, there are questions about whether people with severe illness are getting the treatment they need.
Defectors and experts believe that North Korea is promoting Koryo medicine simply because it does not have enough modern medicines to fight COVID-19.
“Treating mild symptoms with Koryo medicine is not a bad option. But the coronavirus does not only cause mild symptoms,” said Yi Junhyeok, a traditional physician and researcher at the Korea Institute of Oriental Medicine. “When we talk about critically ill and high-risk patients, North Korea needs vaccines, emergency care systems and other useful medical resources to” reduce deaths.
It’s been more than two months since North Korea acknowledged its first coronavirus outbreak, and the country has reported an average of 157 daily fever cases over the past seven days, a significant drop from the high point of about 400,000 a day. during May. It also upholds a widely disputed claim that only 74 of the estimated 4.8 million fever patients have died, a fatality rate of 0.002% that would be the lowest globally.
Despite widespread outside doubts about North Korea’s reported statistics, there is no sign that the outbreak has been catastrophic in North Korea. Some outside experts say Pyongyang could soon declare victory over COVID-19 in a bid to boost internal unity. So North Korea could emphasize the role of Koryo medicine as the reason for the success.
“North Korea calls Koryo medicine ‘juche (self-reliant) medicine,’ attaches importance to it and sees it as one of its political symbols,” said Kim Dongsu, a professor at the School of Korean Medicine at South Korea’s Dongshin University. .
North Korea officially incorporated Koryo medicine, named after an ancient Korean kingdom, into its public health system during the 1950s. Its importance has increased significantly since the mid-1990s, when the country began to suffer from a huge shortage of modern medicines during a devastating famine and economic crisis that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.