Korea: Don't Get Sick


December 6, 2007: It's been a bad Winter in North Korea, especially if you get sick. For the last few months, the government has tried to crack down on the black market for medicine by banning the sale of medical supplies. All such items can only be handled by official government channels, and this restricts availability of drugs and other medical goods. Only about ten percent of the population had decent medical care, courtesy of the special medical network for senior government officials and military personnel.

The medical supplies crackdown is part of a larger effort to stem corruption among government officials. The stealing and deal making has been going on for years, and is increasingly manifesting itself in obvious ways. The corrupt officials are building themselves new homes, are noticeably better dressed, and fed, and sometimes driving a foreign car smuggled in from China. It's become an embarrassment for the government, and a source of growing discontent among the population. Things have reached the point where government officials are being sent to jail or publicly executed.

The corruption is now blamed on everything that goes wrong, and that's half right. Recent problems with the food distribution program (most of the population depends on these government controlled monthly supplies) are attributed to officials stealing the food (and saying it was "spoiled" or "lost in transit") and selling it on the open market (legally or not). One official was punished for taking apart a factory and smuggling valuable components to China, where the stuff was sold. Food from foreign aid shows up in Chinese markets.

The next generation is no better, with about a quarter of college students involved in the black market. One can get rich in North Korea, if you are willing to risk prison (usually a labor camp) or execution. However, more people are being sent away for just mouthing off against the government and the Communist Party. That's a new development.

The North Korean armed forces continue to be starved of resources. The troops get food, and some medicine, but not much else. Little fuel for tanks, ships and aircraft, so there is not much training. No new equipment, and less maintenance on the thirty year old stuff that is still in service.

The secret police, that keep a lid on things, are becoming less trustworthy. It's the corruption again. What happens when you can't trust the guards who guard the guards?


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