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Folk Medicine in N. Korea

#Korea, Today and Tomorrow l 2023-05-31

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

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If you’re not feeling well, you may recall some kind of folk remedy first before going to a doctor or taking medicine. In South Korea, many people still turn to a variety of folk medicines. If they can’t stop coughing, for example, they drink tea made with balloon flower roots. They also believe that castor oil is effective in relieving constipation and tea made with Korean plums helps with digestion and stomach problems. It seems people in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula depend far more on folk medicines, compared to their southern neighbors. 

Today, we’ll examine folk remedies in North Korea with Hyun In-ae, visiting research fellow at the Ewha Institute of Unification Studies. 

Since ancient times, people have used natural resources for the purpose of curing diseases. Aspirin is a typical example. Cited as one of the three best medicines discovered by humans, aspirin has its origin in a folk remedy of ancient people. It is made from willow bark extract.  

In line with medical advances, longtime folk medicines have faded a lot. But that’s not the case in North Korea. 

After I came to South Korea, I found that folk remedies were not really necessary because of advanced medical skills, diverse medicines and the modern treatment system. But the situation in North Korea is different. Medicines are scarce and many diseases cannot be cured. It is little wonder that folk remedies are widely used in the country. 

Researcher Hyun graduated from North Korea’s prestigious Kim Il-sung University and worked as a professor at a local college in the North. After defecting to South Korea, she was surprised to find the well-developed medical infrastructure.

For North Korean residents, unlike their South Korean counterparts, folk remedies make up a considerable portion in their daily lives. 

In general, North Korean mothers breastfeed their babies. As a traditional remedy, they consume boiled pigs feet to increase milk production during lactation. Motherwort is used for female fertility. The herb is made in the form of yeot(엿) or Korean hard taffy. 

Liver cancer cannot be cured in North Korea, due to the lack of modern facilities needed for surgery or liver transplantation. To treat the disease, locals simply drink brown rice tea and herbal tea made from the root of the burdock plant. When they are sick with a cold, they often scoop out the core from an Asian pear, pour honey inside the core and steam it. 

It is common, also for South Koreans, to eat the steamed Asian pear with honey when they catch a cold. 

For North Korean citizens, folk medicines are indispensable for treating diseases. When they have a cough, they boil down the roots of green onion in cooking oil. When they have a sore throat, they eat raw eggs. When they get food poisoning, they grind raw mung beans or acorns and drink them. Alternatively, they dissolve potato starch in water and drink it. 

They usually use home remedies to treat mild illnesses. They are looking for similar remedies even when they have cancer. Actually, North Korean media introduce folk medicines quite often. 

Multiple folk medicines are effective in preventing flu. Salt water, baking soda water and garlic juice are recommended. 

The best way to prevent flu infection is to get a vaccine. Last winter, however, North Korea’s Korean Central Television warned of a flu epidemic and suggested some folk remedies that are believed to be effective in flu prevention and treatment. When COVID-19 spread, local media also introduced similar remedies. 

North Korean TV and newspapers recommended those infected with COVID-19 to boil three-to four grams of honeysuckle in water and drink it. The herb is said to be an effective therapy for bronchitis, so it is also believed to work for respiratory diseases like COVID-19. 

Boiled willow bark is usually used as a traditional medicine. But North Korea advised people to bring willow leaves, not bark, to a boil, four to five grams at a time, to treat COVID-19. The North was probably concerned that people may bark off all the willow trees in Pyongyang. 

In May last year, North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper mentioned honeysuckle or indongcho as a treatment of COVID-19. The medicinal herb is said to help get rid of cough and phlegm. It also advised people to soak willow leaves in hot water and drink the water. 

Those folk medicines prove effective in some cases. Honeysuckle, in particular, helps treat inflammation. Also, willow trees contain salicylic acid, which is widely known as aspirin, so willow is expected to treat inflammation, fever and pain. 

However, these methods cannot be a practical solution to COVID-19. Then, why does North Korea emphasize folk remedies? 

North Korea shut down all its borders in January 2020, two months after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Wuhan, China, in November 2019. The North had already been short of medicine due to the prolonged economic difficulties and international sanctions. 

After that, North Korea had long claimed zero cases of COVID-19 inside the country and promoted its superior healthcare system. But the internal situation was far from what the authorities claimed. 

South Korea has imported COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. But it is difficult for North Korea to import them from the U.S. What is worse, the North rejected China’s offer to provide its Sinovac vaccine. 

Due to the border closure, it became increasingly difficult for North Koreans even to find common medications, including fever reducers and aspirin, which ran out of stock shortly. As a result, those infected with COVID-19 had to suffer from the disease without taking a single medicine. In the North, many people have health problems due to malnutrition. Some of the weak people died without ever having been treated with proper medication. 

North Korea’s chronic shortage of medicines was a serious obstacle to the country’s preventative measures against COVID-19. The North rejected the international offer for anti-virus measures but responded to the pandemic only based on self-reliance and self-sufficiency. 

North Korea does produce medicines on its own, though in small quantities. Before the pandemic, pharmaceutical plants used to produce penicillin and aspirin. The thing is, North Korea imports a considerable amount of the raw materials of the medicines from China. After the North stopped importing them, local plants had to reduce the production of drugs, including commonly used ones. 

North Korea operates some ten central pharmaceutical plants. But the difficulty of importing raw materials as a result of international sanctions and the pandemic-induced border shutdown only deteriorated the shortage of medicines. As an alternative, the country recommended the public to use folk remedies. But the North Korean people were in great pain, as they could not use COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. In May 2022, North Korea finally confirmed its outbreak of COVID-19. 

There has been the gravest emergency incident in the country, with a hole in our emergency quarantine front that has been kept firmly over the past two years and three months. 

Due to its poor medical infrastructure, North Korea reported hundreds of thousands of fever cases each day. Still, the country refused to accept aid offers from South Korea and the U.N. but focused more on highlighting folk medicines instead. 

Boil five to seven roots of green onion in water and drink it. Grate ginger, fill half a small cup with it and eat it before going to bed. It will be greatly helpful for bringing down fever. 

A health official appears on TV and explains some traditional remedies that may help treat the lingering effects of COVID-19. Those who fully recovered from the disease also testify that folk remedies proved effective. 

I drank ginger tea and hot water. I also kept gargling with salt water. Before long, I recovered completely. 

North Korean media introduce traditional medicines made from various medicinal herbs as a cure-all and encourage the people to collect the herbs. 

In North Korea, doctors, nurses and medical students are required to gather a certain amount of herbs a year. Students go out to fields and mountains for a month to carry out the task. Similarly, doctors may not work at clinics during the herb-collecting period and they must meet the quota of some eight kilograms. 

Not only the medical personnel but citizens gather at nearby mountains to pick herbs in April, May, September and October. In fact, North Korea has implemented its free medical system since the 1960s. 

North Korea praises its healthcare system as the best socialist health system in the world. But its free medical system began to collapse in the 1990s, when the country experienced extreme economic difficulties, known locally as the Arduous March. 

Previously, the state paid all the cost of medical examinations, prescriptions, surgeries and medicines. Since the socialist health system fell apart, however, local residents have turned to folk remedies that have been handed down for generations, because they cannot get treatment at the proper time and in the proper way. 

Of course, traditional remedies are not bad. What I mean is that North Koreans rely too heavily on them. North Korea is unable to fight off diseases that can be eradicated with the help of modern medical skills. There are just not enough household medicines in the country. That’s why locals fall back on folk remedies. 

If North Korea wants to provide proper medical treatment to its people, it must develop the medical industry. Unfortunately, the country just cannot afford to. After all, it is a question of money. So, North Korea should solve its economic problems first. If a country has ample financial resources, it can develop medical skills and the people can cure diseases and live long, not necessarily having to depend on folk remedies.

North Korea suffers a triple whammy of the collapsed healthcare system, international sanctions and its self-imposed pandemic border lockdown. If the current situation does not improve, local citizens may continue to turn to folk remedies as a last resort, in place of the proper medical system and medications. 

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