- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 21, 2001

BEIJING North Korean hospitals lack power, proper lighting, modern drugs and equipment, the World Health Organization's top official said yesterday, and only a quick infusion of foreign funds can curb the country's skyrocketing mortality rate.
"If there is no solid base for electricity and water, the risks from a lack of sterility in medical equipment and health services like surgery [increase]," said Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO). "They are all affected by the economic and structural problems the country is facing."
Dr. Brundtland, speaking after a three-day tour of North Korean medical facilities, pointed out that North Korea's mortality rate has increased 30 percent to 40 percent in recent years.
Tuberculosis, malaria and children's diseases linked to malnutrition are the key health problems in the poverty-stricken nation of 22 million people.
Her report came a day after Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton declared that the United States finds North Korea's biological weapons program "extremely disturbing."
Speaking at a conference in Geneva on Monday, Mr. Bolton said North Korea, despite its lack of resources, was believed through a dedicated, national-level effort to have "developed and produced and may have weaponized" biological agents.
North Korea established an extensive free health care system in the 1960s and 1970s, but its medical infrastructure has crumbled during the past decade of economic decline and harsh weather conditions that killed up to 1 million people and finally forced the isolated, Stalinist state to seek outside support.
The WHO director general made her comments at a press conference held in the Chinese capital, still the world's window on Kim Jong-il's secretive kingdom, ahead of a U.N. appeal next week for donor aid.
WHO hopes next week's appeal will raise $8 million for the health sector ahead of another harsh winter.
"There needs to be a higher priority in investing in health," Dr. Brundtland urged, "not just for humanitarian reasons, but for economic development. If you invest in health, you invest in the future of the country."
During meetings with North Korean government officials, including President Kim Yong-nam, the nominal head of state, Dr. Brundtland said she had asked the Korean authorities to raise their own spending on health to 3 percent of gross domestic product. "They did not respond directly," she conceded, "but they listened carefully."
Dr. Brundtland acknowledged the danger of donor fatigue, heightened by the ongoing war and refugee crisis in Central Asia, but insisted the developed world could and should do more to help the world's poor.
Many more countries can afford the contributions, Dr. Brundtland said.
"It is really necessary for the world to invest more in the health of poor countries."
North Korea's almost total lack of administrative transparency has long exasperated overseas aid organizations, but WHO officials have stressed that they are confident that medical supplies, including the first shipment of tuberculosis drugs delivered this week, have reached the civilian population.
"There are accessibility and monitoring constraints," said Dr. Eigil Sorensen, WHO representative in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. "But our experience suggests that there is no major diversion to the armed forces."
After years of outside assistance, managed through an emergency coordination office in Pyongyang, WHO this week became the fourth U.N. organization to have a permanent North Korean representative office.
The others are the World Food Program, the U.N. Development Program and the U.N. Children's Fund.
Other aid agencies have pulled out in recent years in protest at the Draconian restrictions they face.
One German doctor was forced to leave when he publicly criticized the sorry state of Pyongyang's hospitals, where old beer bottles are strung up as makeshift intravenous drips.


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