Director-General of the WHO, Margaret Chan, has directed her spokesperson, Paul Garwood, to attack the Amnesty International report on the horrifying health conditions in North Korea. It should be noted that Mr. Garwood is a former journalist who now serves in press relations at the WHO. He has no apparent scientific credentials.
Director-General Chan, via Mr. Garwood, has leveled several criticisms of the report (from CBS News, July 16, 2010):
1. “There’s no science in the research.”
2. “All the facts are from people who aren’t in the country…”
3. The report was based on old, anecdotal information.
Mr. Garwood is likely simply repeating the talking points Director-General Chan instructed him to disseminate to the media. Even so, he might take the time to actually read the Amnesty International report to save himself the embarrassment of making false statements to the media.
Doing scientific research on the state of health care in North Korea is difficult. This is because people who reveal the true state of starvation and inadequate medical care are tortured and killed. This is well-established. Suggesting that Amnesty International’s interviews with people who have escaped from North Korea are not valid is simply stupid. If they tried to interview people in North Korea, they would get their subjects killed.
Despite the difficulties in obtaining quantitative information, presumably what Mr. Garwood means by “scientific”, Amnesty International does in fact cite a study conducted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization:
In the lean months, households often mix wild foods with grains, such as corn or rice, in order to make their limited food supply last longer.15 A food and security assessment in 2008 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and WFP found that compared to the 2003-2005 period, North Koreans’ consumption of wild foods increased by nearly 20 per cent.16 It also found that wild foods had a negative effect on the health of young children:
“Diarrhoea caused by increased consumption of wild foods was reported to be one of the leading causes for malnutrition amongst children under 5, particularly in urban areas. Most hospitals and child institutions had limited ability to effectively treat malnutrition due to lack of fortified food for infants.”17
So, from this one excerpt, we can establish that Amnesty International report cites a scientific study, done in North Korea, by the FAO in 2008. Thus, all three of Mr. Garwood’s assertions are shown to be false.
Adequate nutrition is fundamental to public health. A government which cannot feed its people has failed in its most basic duty. In response to reporters questions about starvation in North Korea, Margaret Chan responded:
…one thing I recognized is that walking is quite well observed in that country, and I suggest that is why I didn’t see many obese people.
What kind of statement is this? It is certainly not scientific. And it is certainly not true. Director-General Chan did see some overweight people in North Korea – her hosts from the ruling Communist Party. They receive special luxury foods from China. The common people, on the other hand, are starving to death.
From The Hankyoreh, March 6, 2010
It is a widely believed fact that increasing numbers of North Koreans have starved to death in the wake of the currency reform that took place Nov. 30.
From The Times, March 20, 2010
Once again, rice has disappeared from tables in North Korea. A famine looms and — as happened in the 1990s — millions could die.
From the Washington Post, May 7, 2010
North Korea watchers say they think Kim traveled to China in search of investment and aid, particularly food. North Korea’s moribund economy has been squeezed by tighter U.N. sanctions, and a food shortage this spring has reportedly caused starvation in some areas.
The idea that public health in North Korea has anything whatsoever that “other developing countries would envy”, as Margaret Chan claims, is ludicrous.
Why are such bizarre claims being made by the Director-General of the WHO in the face of overwhelming evidence from Amnesty International, the FAO, the Washington Post, and many other sources?
The third blog in this series will consider Margaret Chan’s motives.