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(LEAD) Amnesty Int'l says N. Korea's health system demands outside aid

All Headlines 16:49 July 15, 2010

(ATTN: ADDS more info from in paras 3-8, 11; CORRECTS quote in para 2)
By Lee Haye-ah

SEOUL, July 15 (Yonhap) -- The North Korean government's reluctance to seek humanitarian aid from the international community has exacerbated the health of its people, a researcher for Amnesty International said Thursday.

"Food insecurity remains a critical concern for millions of people in North Korea," Norma Kang Muico, Asia-Pacific researcher for the international human rights watchdog, said during a press conference in Seoul. "This has been compounded by the reluctance of the government to seek assistance."

Muico made the remark while presenting Amnesty International's new report, "The Crumbling State of Health Care in North Korea," which highlighted the plight of the North Korean people hit by the double whammy of food shortages and poor health care.

"North Korea's long-term food insecurity is a major factor in serious, chronic health problems," the report says. "Malnutrition compromises people's immune systems, increasing their vulnerability to infections and diseases."

The communist country has been battling a tuberculosis epidemic for more than a decade, according to Muico, with statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) revealing 15,000 deaths due to the disease in 2007. Around 105,000 people were infected with tuberculosis that year, including 82,000 new cases, figures show.

While the North Korean government maintains that it is able to meet the needs of its people, interviews with North Koreans who left the country to settle in the South indicate otherwise, according to the researcher. More than 40 North Koreans were selected for interviews based on their final departure date, mostly ranging from 2004-2009, and regardless of their health backgrounds. All of them, however, had experienced some level of health problems, reflecting the poor health of the North Korean population and the dire health care system they face, Muico said.

A 24-year-old man, identified by his surname Hwang, told Amnesty International about having part of his left leg amputated in 2000 without any anesthesia.

"Five medical assistants held my arms and legs down to keep me from moving. I was in so much pain that I screamed and eventually fainted from the pain. I woke up one week later in a hospital bed," he said.

Muico also pointed out the negative effects of North Korea's unsuccessful currency revaluation in November, how it "caused spiraling inflation, aggravated food shortages and sparked social unrest."

The situation was made worse when the government restricted the use of foreign currency and prohibited small farming, Muico said. "The currency debacle resulted in many people dying of starvation and many people losing their entire savings."

The North spends less than US$1 per person per year on health, according to the WHO's latest available figures from 2006. Other countries in southeast Asia with similar per capita GDPs, such as Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal, spent significantly more.

"As a matter of priority, (the North Korean government must) ensure that food shortages are acknowledged and effective steps taken to address these shortages, including acceptance of needed international humanitarian assistance," Muico said.


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