As a medical student in North Korea, Lee Gwang-jin said he treated his fever and other minor ailments with traditional herbal medicine. But a serious illness could cause problems, as hospitals in his rural hometown lacked the ambulances and beds — and sometimes even the electricity — needed to treat critical or emergency patients.
So Lee was skeptical when he heard recent reports in North Korean state media claiming that Koryo’s so-called traditional medicine is playing a key role in the country’s fight against COVID-19, which has killed millions of people around the world.
“North Korea uses a lot of Koryo drugs [for COVID-19] …but it’s not a sure-fire cure,” said Lee, who studied Koryo medicine before fleeing North Korea for a new life in South Korea in 2018. “One destined to survive will survive [with such medicine]but North Korea cannot help others who are dying.”
As the state media spreads stories about the drug’s effectiveness and the massive production effort to make more of it, there are questions about whether people suffering from serious illness are getting the treatment they need.
Defectors and experts believe North Korea is mobilizing Koryo medicine simply because it doesn’t have enough modern drugs to fight COVID-19.
“Treating mild symptoms with Koryo drugs is not a bad option. … But the coronavirus doesn’t just cause mild symptoms,” said Yi Junhyeok, a traditional physician and researcher at the Korea Institute of Oriental Medicine in South Korea. “When we think of critical and high-risk patients, North Korea needs vaccines, emergency response systems and other medical resources it can use” to reduce the number of fatalities.
More than two months have passed since North Korea admitted its first coronavirus outbreak, and the country has reported an average of 157 cases of fever per day for the past seven days, a significant drop from its peak of about 400,000 per day in May. It also maintains a widely disputed claim that only 74 of the approximately 4.8 million fever patients have died, a 0.002% mortality rate that would be the world’s lowest if true.
Despite widespread outside doubt about the truth of North Korea’s reported statistics, there are no signs that the outbreak has caused catastrophe in North Korea. Some outside experts say the North may soon formally declare victory over COVID-19. North Korea can then emphasize the role of Koryo medicine as a reason.
North Korea calls Koryo drug ‘juche’ [self-reliant] medicine,” considers it important and considers it one of its political symbols,” said Kim Dongsu, a professor at the College of Korean Medicine at Dongshin University in South Korea. it will likely be actively spreading the Koryo drug.”
North Korea officially incorporated the Koryo drug — named after an ancient Korean kingdom — into its public health system in the 1950s. Its importance has grown since the mid-1990s, when North Korea faced a shortage of modern medicines during a crippling famine and economic turmoil that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Koryo medicine refers to herbal concoctions that sometimes include animal parts, acupuncture, cupping, moxibustion, some form of heat therapy, and meridian massages. Such ancient remedies are also used in many Asian and Western countries. But while in those countries traditional and modern medicines operate independently, North Korea has combined them.
Medical students in North Korea are required to study both modern and traditional medicine in school, regardless of their major. So once they become professional doctors, they can practice both. Every hospital in North Korea has a Koryo medicine department. There are also medicine-only hospitals in Koryo.
Kim Jieun, a defector who is a traditional doctor in South Korea, said she studied Koryo medicine at a school in the north but ended up working as a pediatrician and internal medicine physician. She said South Koreans generally use traditional medicine to maintain or improve their health, but North Koreans use it to treat various diseases.
“In South Korea, patients with cerebral haemorrhage, hepatocrosis, liver cancer, ascites, diabetes and kidney infections do not come to traditional clinics. But in North Korea, traditional doctors treat them,” said Kim, who settled in South Korea in 2002. and now works for the Well Saem Hospital of Korean Medicine in Seoul.
North Korea’s main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, recently published several articles praising herbal medicine and acupuncture for curing fever patients and reducing the after-effects of COVID-19 diseases, including abnormal pains, heart and kidney problems, nausea and cough.
The paper also published calls from leader Kim Jong Un to embrace Koryo’s medicine. Other state media reports said production of Koryo drugs has quadrupled since last year, while a huge amount of modern drugs were also quickly delivered to local medical facilities, 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 medicines and pay doctors for surgeries and other treatments. They say North Korea’s advanced hospitals are largely concentrated in Pyongyang, the capital, which is home to the ruling elite and upper-class citizens loyal to the Kim family.
Some experts previously predicted that the COVID-19 outbreak could have serious consequences in North Korea, as most of the 26 million people are unvaccinated and about 40% of the population is reported to be malnourished. Now they are speculating that North Korea is likely underreporting its death toll to avoid political damage to Kim Jong-un.
Lee, 29, the former North Korean medical student, said people in Hyesan only went to hospitals when they were extremely ill.
“If they’re moderately ill, they just get acupuncture or Koryo herbal medicine. They rely on Koryo medicine, but they don’t earn much either, and Koryo medicine is cheaper than Western medicine,” Lee said.