THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published — Sunday 5 May 2013
Last update 5 May 2013 4:35 am
The Man Nyon Pharmacy is lined with rows of colorful packages containing everything from dried bear bile and deer antler elixir to tiger bone paste and ginseng. But the ancient “Koryo” medicine provided at this popular dispensary isn’t just for minor aches and pains.
It has been integrated into the health system from the smallest village clinic all the way up to the nicest showcase hospitals in the privileged capital of Pyongyang. Both modern and traditional styles of healing have long been uniquely intertwined nationwide with doctors from both schools working in tandem under one roof.
North Korean physicians say many patients prefer traditional medicine to the Western kind, but it’s difficult to determine the true situation in this closed and impoverished society where access is limited. Defectors, foreign aid workers and North Koreans agree that many Western drugs are scarce and say villagers still forage for plants in some areas to make their own herbal concoctions.
With the UN Security Council imposing its toughest-ever sanctions following North Korea’s third nuclear test in February, patients may become even more dependent on these home-grown remedies in a country of 24 million people where government health spending ranks among the world’s lowest.
“Doctors are more interested in Koryo medicine rather than Western medicine because they can get it more easily,” said Ri Hye Yong, who manages the frigid concrete pharmacy opened by the government nearly three decades ago. “It’s much cheaper.”
Jang Jun Sang, a department director at the Ministry of Public Health, said in an interview in February that sanctions have cut imports of medical equipment and supplies. But he said North Korea was used to sanctions.
Traditional medicine is cheaper and easier to find. Walls of tiny wooden drawers similar to a library card catalog fill one vast room at Pyongyang Medical College, each containing hundreds of tiny paper triangles stuffed with dried herbs.
“I think Koryo medicine has mysterious characteristics,” said Dr. Ryu Hwan Su, the hospital’s deputy chief, who proudly displayed a jar filled with a fat ginseng root believed to be more than a century old. “It heals illnesses that Western medicines can’t treat.”
Traditional medicine is used widely in many Asian countries, including China, Japan and South Korea, where there is no shortage of modern treatment and equipment. And while scientific research regarding the benefits of some age-old treatments is lacking, therapies such as massage and acupuncture — which can also serve as a local anesthetic — are now widely used in the West.
Some North Korean clinics have their own greenhouses, and herbs are harvested every year in the wild to be processed into teas and other concoctions. The government says Koryo medicine is used to treat more than half the patients in rural clinics. But shortages exist too.
Patients are often prescribed a simple herb they are expected to get themselves, said Dr. Byungmook Lim, a professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University School of Korean Medicine, who co-authored a study comparing traditional medicine in the two Koreas.
The country began marrying traditional medicine with modern practice in the 1950s after the Korean War. Doctors were given training in Koryo medicine and each hospital was set up with a department devoted to it, with prevention as the guiding concept behind the socialized health plan. Unlike in other Asian countries where the two practices are typically kept separate, traditional practitioners in North Korea can prescribe modern drugs and assist during surgeries, while Western doctors can use Koryo treatments.
“We kept talking to each other and consulting each other,” said Kim Jie-eun, who graduated from a Koryo school with some modern training, and practiced in North Korea as a pediatrician and internal medicine doctor before defecting in 1999. She now runs a traditional clinic in Bucheon, South Korea, and recalls that even acupuncture needles were reused in the North. She said frequent shortages of antibiotics meant high-level officials got treated first, while ordinary patients struggled to find medicines.
“I was really angry. They were the same human beings,” she said. “How this could happen?“
But she believes combining the two types of treatment was actually better for patients. She said Koryo medicine — taken from the old name for Korea — was often used alone or in combination with Western drugs to treat a variety of health problems including stroke, hepatitis, high blood pressure, kidney disorders and diabetes.
And it’s still done today. At the new Breast Cancer Research Center at the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital, a showcase institution where The Associated Press was recently taken on a tour, patient Ri Jong Suk said she was set to be released after having a mastectomy and reconstruction surgery.
She said during her one-month stay she was given Western medicine along with Koryo treatment, including massage and acupuncture, to help strengthen her immune system, decrease swelling and circulate blood after surgery. The Health Ministry also cites hot springs, mineral water and mud among successful treatments. Cupping is another popular therapy believed to stimulate blood flow by using heated glass jars to create a vacuum on the skin.
Many of these healing techniques are also commonly used in South Korea, which is rooted in the same ancient traditional medicine as its northern counterpart. But in that country, modern and traditional medicines typically operate independently, each with its own licensing and education system.