Sunday, July 18, 2010

Accusations Fly Over North Korean Healthcare

One of the world’s top human rights organizations and the United Nations main health agency haven gotten into an outright catfight over the state of healthcare in North Korea.

Three months ago the World Health Organization released a study calling the North Korean state-run healthcare system the “envy of the developing world,” saying that the country offered universal coverage to its citizens thanks to an ample supply of doctors and nurses who efficiently delivered their services. On Thursday, Amnesty International replied with a report of their own on that basically called the WHO’s study nonsense (we’re being polite here). Amnesty’s own report was filled with stories of doctors performing amputations without anesthesia and of hospitals lit by candlelight due to a lack of electricity. The study further found that medical services often weren’t available unless the patient was first able to pay the doctor a bribe first (presumably for their amputation-by-candlelight). The WHO, in turn, has shot back, defending the methodology of their study while attacking Amnesty International’s, which they claim was based largely on anecdotal stories, some dating back ten years. They added for good measure that the horror stories were not confirmed by the WHO’s own study of the North Korean system.

The Associated Press story mentions in passing an interesting phenomenon possibly at play in the WHO report on North Korea – namely that groups like the WHO rely on the will of the government to operate within a given country, and in some cases (like North Korea), this means dealing with some pretty odious regimes. It’s a discussion that I’ve had with some people I know who work within the UN system. They realize that there is a belief among some in the general public that the United Nations tends to go easy on the world’s bad governments. Of course they realize that leaders like Kim Jong-il are pretty heinous people, but they also realize if they’re too critical of the local despot, they will be kicked out of the country. So, my UN colleagues explain, they hold their tongues for the greater good of providing what aid they can to people living on the margins of societies where the government could in fact care less if they live or die (and in some cases would actually prefer the latter).

It’s a hard point to argue in some ways, though the critique of the WHO report on North Korea was that it was just so positive in discussing their health care system, far beyond what its expected would be needed to keep the Dear Leader happy and out of the WHO’s hair. When questioned on Friday in response to the Amnesty report on what developing countries “envied” the North Korean health care system, a WHO spokeswoman couldn’t name any. The WHO-Amnesty debate isn’t likely to go away anytime soon neither is the debate on how far the UN should go along in trying to appease the world’s dictators just so they can continue to operate within their countries.

NoKo propaganda poster from the Sci-Tech Heretic.
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