Life-Saving Medical Treatment Needed in the DPRK

When our family first began providing medical treatment for children with disabilities in North Korea, Stephen asked the Pyongyang Medical School Hospital Director if the hospital could provide a bed for him to bring a girl with quadriplegic cerebral palsy from a NE Province in North Korea to Pyongyang for treatment. The director was indignant at first. “We don’t have cerebral palsy in our country!” he declared. We had no desire to argue with him but we continued to plead for just one hospital bed, and eventually he relented.

The greatest result from these happenings, however, took place in the hearts of the administrators and doctors at the hospital. When parents of pediatric patients started seeing a girl with cerebral palsy being treated in the hospital, they started to call friends and family back home. Not even a month went by before mothers and their disabled children began to line up outside the hospital for treatment. The hospital administrator returned to us and exclaimed, “I didn’t realize that this was such a huge problem in our country. We have to do something about this. Perhaps we ought to start our own therapy program for children with these kind of disabilities.” As a result, it was through one child’s treatment that a new program for children with developmental disabilities was born!

One of our first patients, who was ten years old, came to the hospital not able to sit up or walk on her own. But after eleven months of physical and occupational therapy, she was discharged from the hospital walking on her own, independent from any support. The North Korean broadcasting company came out to air her discharge from the hospital to her home village. It was the first time in North Korean history for a quadriplegic child to receive therapy and experience such a dramatic transformation.

Ten year-old girl treated for cerebral palsy in the Pyongyang Medical School Hospital

Ten year-old girl treated for cerebral palsy in the Pyongyang Medical School Hospital

Immediately after she was discharged, a pediatric doctor came into Stephen’s doctor’s office. “May I talk to you?” she asked.

“Of course, please come in,” Stephen invited. He could tell that this doctor had been crying. Her eyes were red and swollen.

“I have sent hundreds of children like this patient away telling their parents that there is no hope, to let the child go quickly,” the doctor admitted.

Stephen could tell that this confession was genuine. It was a quest for forgiveness.

“What should I do?” she pleaded.

“Let’s begin now. Let’s make a difference in one child’s life at a time,” Stephen suggested.

Although in developed nations, disabilities are not considered a life-threatening condition, in North Korea, it often is. Up until a few years ago, expert treatment for various disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism, and other developmental disabilities was nonexistent. Parents had few options for support or treatment for their children. As a result, they had no hope. According to the doctors’ advice, they would often “let their child go quickly”.

Incredible progress in treatment of developmental disabilities has been achieved in North Korea. Unfortunately, current UN sanctions and US regulations are making continuing humanitarian work in North Korea very challenging. Humanitarian organizations have to apply for Special Validation Passports just to visit North Korea, and these passports are issued on an extremely limited basis. In addition, UN Sanction Committee exemptions are necessary to ship any medicine or medical supplies to North Korea, but these are only granted if the organization has already obtained an OFAC License from the US Treasury Department. All of this red tape delays and hinders life-saving humanitarian aid to the DPRK.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that tens of thousands of people will die in North Korea this year from the lack of tuberculosis treatment, alone (US News World Report, Nov. 16, 2018). This does not include the number of individuals with other infectious diseases such hepatitis or the number of children with disabilities and/or other conditions.

Our non-profit organization, known Ignis Community, has made huge strides in not only treatment for disabilities but also in medical training for professionals in North Korea. Medical training is key to continue much-needed treatment for the most vulnerable children in society. Like the infamous saying goes, “It is better to teach a man to fish, than to give him a fish.” It is better to train the doctors in how to treat pediatric disabilities properly than to just treat the children, themselves.

We can only hope that despite the current restrictions there is light at the end of the tunnel. For the sake of the thousands who are in desperate need of life-saving medical treatment in the DPRK, the sooner and less impeded humanitarian work can resume in North Korea the better. And like other humanitarian organizations already providing a limited scope of humanitarian work in the DPRK, we trust that Ignis Community will be able to continue to meet the needs of children with developmental disabilities throughout the nation.

Davis Mursalie