On November 26th, Kee B. Park, MD, presented on the “Geopolitical Determinants of Health in the Democratic Republic of Korea” at the Yale School of Medicine. Dr. Kee Park is the Paul Farmer Global Health Surgery Scholar at the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He is also the Director of the North Korea Program for the Korean American Medical Association, leading a total of 18 trips to North Korea that gave him direct insight into humanitarian intervention and the building of health systems.
Dr. Kee Park’s first-hand experiences working within North Korea were especially striking for the Yale School of Medicine audience. Having conducted surgical operations within the Pyongyang College of Medicine, Dr. Kee Park described the conditions of their operating rooms: single-use scalpels were repeatedly used even when rusty, and nurses were forced to manually ventilate patients during hours-long surgeries. Dr. Kee Park called these working conditions “socialized for scarcity.” Multiple Yale School of Medicine students expressed disbelief at the state of North Korean medical facilities—a testament to the gap between North Korean healthcare and that of the developed world.
Dr. Kee Park then spoke about the external political pressures driving current geopolitical health issues. He firmly believes that the North Korean government’s paranoia of an attack on their sovereignty compels them to spend heavily on defense, instead of on vital programs such as healthcare. He adds that foreign countries are largely responsible for this paranoia, citing President George W. Bush’s inclusion of North Korea into the now famous “axis of evil,” along with aggressive US-South Korea joint military exercises. As “North Korea’s military expenditures are approaching more than 22.3% of GDP,” he noted, “what [North Korea] spends [on the military], they cannot spend on medicine, drugs, or even a scalpel.”
Another poignant point Dr. Kee Park stressed was that the core principle of humanitarian assistance should be neutrality and that foreign countries should be weary of politicizing North Korea aid that would ultimately harm those that truly need it. A specific example of politicization he cited was the Global Fund, which has treated HIV, AIDS, and malaria in North Korea since 2010. According to Dr. Kee Park, their recent announcement of intent to discontinue North Korean operations undoubtedly has roots in political and diplomatic pressure.
When asked what inspired him to start speaking about the geopolitical health crisis in North Korea, he asserted that “at some point, [he] just felt too uncomfortable not speaking out.” Along with his visits across the country, Dr. Kee Park has written several influential articles and essays to strengthen his outreach. His New York Times op-ed titled “Hunger in North Korea is Devastating. And It’s Our Fault,” is still widely spread and cited, sparking important conversation among doctors, politicians, and activists alike.
He ended the presentation with a call to action: “If you see something that isn’t right, then speak out.”