Ginseng, Bear Bile: North Koreans Look to Old Cures

Manila Bulletin, May 2, 2013 | Go to article overview

Ginseng, Bear Bile: North Koreans Look to Old Cures


Pyongyang, North Korea (AP) -The Man Nyon Pharmacy is lined with rows of colorful packages containing everything from dried bear bile and deer antler elixir to tiger bone paste and ginseng. But the ancient ''Koryo'' medicine provided at this popular dispensary isn't just for minor aches and pains.

It has been integrated into the health system from the smallest village clinic all the way up to the nicest showcase hospitals in the privileged capital of Pyongyang. Both modern and traditional styles of healing have long been uniquely intertwined nationwide with doctors from both schools working in tandem under one roof.

North Korean physicians say many patients prefer traditional medicine to the Western kind, but it's difficult to determine the true situation in this closed and impoverished society where access is limited. Defectors, foreign aid workers and North Koreans agree that many Western drugs are scarce and say villagers still forage for plants in some areas to make their own herbal concoctions.

With the UN Security Council imposing its toughest-ever sanctions following North Korea's third nuclear test in February, patients may become even more dependent on these home-grown remedies in a country of 24 million people where government health spending ranks among the world's lowest.

''Doctors are more interested in Koryo medicine rather than Western medicine because they can get it more easily,'' said Ri Hye Yong, who manages the frigid concrete pharmacy opened by the government nearly three decades ago. ''It's much cheaper.''

The latest restrictions are meant to squeeze new young leader Kim Jong Un and the ruling class by clamping down on access to foreign travel and luxury goods. North Korea has responded with tirades that include threatening nuclear attacks against the US and its allies.

The resolution is not supposed to block donor aid to those who need it most, including the two-thirds of the population who don't have enough to eat. …

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