Healthcare for women and babies in North Korea is far worse than international research has previously shown, according to new evidence from hundreds of defectors.
North Korea’s maternal mortality rate is 1,200 deaths per 100,000 births, 15 times higher than what had been reported in UN data and nearly five times above the global average, according to the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, a Seoul-based non-governmental organization.
“Women don’t die right after they give birth. They go home because there are no conditions for postnatal care [in the hospital],” said a doctor who fled North Korea in 2016. “There are cases in which they start bleeding walking home, and after continuously bleeding for two to three days at home they die.”
Interviews with defectors also uncovered anecdotal evidence of barbaric treatment of infants born with disabilities and deformities. “Many women have their pregnancies terminated midterm, and those who don’t have money keep the baby and give birth. If the babies have a disability, they are either not given food until they die or are put face down to suffocate,” the doctor said. “It was like they never existed.”
The NGO (NKDB) puts North Korea’s neonatal mortality rate at 46 deaths per 1,000 births, a nearly fivefold increase from UN estimates and more than double the world average of 18.
NKDB said North Korea’s free healthcare system is “defunct” for many of its 25m people, plagued by a lack of medicine, facilities and equipment, as well as corrupt officials who divert humanitarian aid for their own profit. There is also insufficient electricity to power devices. Only 65 per cent of births were attended by skilled medical staff, NKDB found, compared with the near 100 per cent claimed in the country’s official data.
Despite greater availability of medicine at local markets, called jangmadang, and more privately run pharmacies in recent years, there are many areas where people do not have the financial means to afford even basic medicine, researchers said. NKDB’s estimates of incidences of infectious diseases, including tuberculosis and malaria, were higher than the UN’s. The NGO’s findings for non-communicable diseases, however, were lower.
Reliable statistics on North Korea are scarce as international efforts to gather data, including by the UN, are restricted by officials. But experts say defector testimonies provide some of the most trustworthy insights into the country. NKDB surveyed 503 North Koreans who resettled in South Korea between March and August this year, including more than 400 women. Longer interviews were conducted with defectors who had worked as nurses or doctors.
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