ARC's 1st Law: As a "progressive" online discussion grows longer, the probability of a nefarious reference to Karl Rove approaches one

Monday, July 04, 2005

The Hermit Nation in the LA Times

The LA Times has a disturbing and lengthy piece about the North Korean town of Chongjin. This is a must read and is the first of a two part piece.

His day begins at 4:30 a.m. The 64-year-old retired math teacher doesn't own a clock or even a watch, but the internal alarm that has kept him alive while so many of his fellow North Koreans have starved to death tells him he had better get out to pick grass if his family is to survive.

Soon the streets of his city, Chongjin, will be swarming with others doing the same. Some cook the grass to eat. The teacher feeds it to the rabbits his family sells at the market.

At 10 a.m., he eats a modest meal of corn porridge. A late breakfast is best as it allows him and his wife to skip lunch. Then he goes with a hand cart to collect firewood. He has to walk two hours from Chongjin, mostly uphill, to find a patch that has not been stripped bare of vegetation.

"There is no time for rest. If you stand still, you will not survive," said the teacher, a lean, soft-spoken man with salt-and-pepper hair who could be described as elegant if not for his threadbare trousers and his fingernails, as gnarled as oyster shells from chronic malnutrition.

Later, if it is one of the rare evenings when there is electricity, he might indulge in reading Tolstoy. More often than not, he collapses for a few hours of sleep before the routine is replayed for yet another day.

Such is the quest for survival in North Korea, an impoverished country that is the most closed in the world.

It discusses average life in North Korea for a school teacher, children, parents, workers, doctors.... just disturbing what this extreme ideology has wrought on the people of North Korea. It's a shame that some think that the plight of North Korea is the fault of the US.

Physician Kim Ji Eun worked for nearly a decade at Chongjin's Provincial Hospital No. 2. It is the teaching hospital for the city's main medical school and is located in Pohang, the district of the party elite.

In the 1960s, much of its equipment and some staff came from Eastern Europe. Older Chongjin residents still proudly refer to it as the Czech hospital. But Kim, 40, cringes with embarrassment as she recalls its privations.

Her patients were expected to bring their own food and blankets. There often were no bandages, so they would cut strips of their own bedding. To hold their intravenous fluid, patients usually brought empty bottles of Chongjin's most popular beer, Nakwon (Paradise).

"If they would bring in one beer bottle, they'd get one IV. If they'd bring two bottles, they would get two," Kim said.

It wasn't always that way. Until the 1990s, North Korea provided free healthcare to its citizens and its pharmaceutical factories produced medicines. But when the economy collapsed and the factories closed, drugs became scarce. Doctors could prescribe medicine, but the prescriptions could be filled only if the patient had the money and the luck to find the pills at a private market.

Traditional remedies began to play a bigger role. Twice a year, in spring and autumn, the physicians at Kim's hospital would be required to travel into the mountains for up to five weeks to hunt for medicinal plants. They would collect peony root to treat nervous disorders, and wild yam, dandelion and atractylodes for digestive disorders.

Each doctor had a quota, and the herbs were weighed and inspected for cleanliness by the hospital's chief pharmacologist.

But herbs could not take the place of powerful anesthetics. Doctors would use acupuncture for simple surgeries such as appendectomies.

"When it works, it works very well," Kim said. As for when it doesn't, she said, "North Koreans are tough and used to bearing pain. They're not like South Koreans who scream and shout about the slightest thing."

Kim had wanted to be a teacher or journalist. But North Koreans aren't allowed to chose their own professions, and because of her good grades in science, she was assigned to medical school. She graduated in 1988.

Early in her career, Kim recalled, she saw a 27-year-old patient recently released from a prison where he had been sent for "economic crimes." That meant he had engaged in private business. He was malnourished and badly bruised from a beating.

The hospital director forbade Kim to give him medicine. "He's a convict," the director told her. "Let's save it for someone else." Kim protested.

The clashes with her boss prompted Kim to switch to pediatrics. But she found that even more frustrating.

"I saw a lot of 2-year-olds to 4-year-olds dying of malnutrition. Often it was not the starvation itself. They would get a minor cold that would kill them," said Kim. "They would look at you with these big eyes. Even the children always knew they were dying."

The Times also has video here and here, as well as pictures from North Korea - extremely rare.

Your Co-Conspirator,
ARC: St Wendeler