North Korea Pushes traditional COVID Medicine

As a medical student in North Korea, Lee Gwang-jin said he treated his fevers and other minor ailments with traditional herbal medicine. But bad illness could mean trouble because hospitals in his rural hometown lacked the ambulances, beds, even the electricity at times needed to treat critical or emergency patients.

So Lee was skeptical when he heard recent North Korean state media reports that claimed such so-called Koryo traditional medicine is playing a key role in the nation’s fight against COVID-19, which has killed millions around the world.

“North Korea is using Koryo medicine a lot (for COVID-19) … but it’s not a sure remedy,” said Lee, who studied Koryo medicine before he fled North Korea in 2018 for a new life in South Korea. “Someone who is destined to survive will survive (with such medicine), but North Korea can’t help others who are dying.”

Like many other parts of life in North Korea, the medicine that the state says is curing its sick people is being used as a political symbol. That, experts say, will eventually allow the country to say its leaders have beaten the outbreak, where other nations have repeatedly failed, by providing homegrown remedies, independent of outside help.

As state media churn out stories about the effectiveness of the medicine and the huge production efforts to make more of it, there are questions about whether people suffering from severe disease are getting the treatment they need.

Defectors and experts believe North Korea is mobilizing Koryo medicine simply because it doesn’t have enough modern medicine to fight COVID-19.

“Treating mild symptoms with Koryo medicine isn’t a bad option. … But the coronavirus doesn’t cause only mild symptoms,” said Yi Junhyeok, a traditional doctor and researcher at South Korea’s Korea Institute of Oriental Medicine. “When we think about critical and high-risk patients, North Korea needs vaccines, emergency care systems and other medical resources that it can use to” lower fatalities.

More than two months have passed since North Korea admitted its first coronavirus outbreak,and the country has reported an average of 157 fever cases each day in the past seven days, a significant drop from the peak of about 400,000 a day in May. It also maintains a widely disputed claim that only 74 out of about 4.8 million fever patients have died, a fatality rate of 0.002% that would be the world’s lowest if true.