Thursday, July 29, 2010
The Real Story on the DPRK, Its Healthcare
By Stephen Gowans
Reprinted From the Zimbabwe Herald
THE United States has announced that it is adding a new tranche to the
Himalaya of sanctions it has built up since 1950 against North Korea,
sanctions I outlined in my last article ‘‘Amnesty International
botches blame for North Korea’s crumbling healthcare’’.
Calling the new sanctions "measures" — perhaps to escape the disfavour
the word has fallen into after sanctions wiped out the lives of half a
million Iraqi children in the 1990s — US secretary of state Hillary
Clinton purred reassuringly that the new "measures are not directed at
the people of North Korea."
She didn’t predict, however, whether they would add to the misery the
previous umpteenth round of sanctions has already visited upon the
lives of North Koreans, even if she says they aren’t directed at them,
but we can be pretty sure they will.
At the same time preparations were underway to launch Operation
Invincible Spirit, a four day joint US-South Korea military exercise
to take place in the Sea of Japan, involving 8000 troops, 200
warplanes and an armada of warships led by the aircraft carrier USS
The point of the exercise, according to the US commander in the
Pacific, Robert Willard, is to "send a strong signal to Pyongyang and
Kim Jong-il regarding the provocation that Cheonan represented" (the
Cheonan being the South Korean warship that sunk in disputed waters in
Inasmuch as the Cheonan’s sinking appears to be a replay of the Gulf
of Tonkin incident — the alleged attack on a US Navy destroyer by
North Vietnamese patrol boats used by US president Lyndon Johnson as a
pretext to step up war on Vietnam — the military exercises represent
the second stage of what looks like a plan to increase pressure on
Pyongyang, with a view to producing what US policy has been trying to
produce north of the 38th parallel for the last 60 years: the collapse
of the anti-imperialist governments led by Kim Il-sung and now Kim
The first part of the plan was to blame North Korea for the Cheonan’s sinking.
The second part is to launch military exercises using the pretext of the first.
China calls the exercises, scheduled to begin this Sunday, provocative.
And University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings points out that the
North Koreans become agitated whenever the United States and South
Korea carry out joint military exercises, because they "see them as a
prelude to a possible attack."
Indeed, since it is impossible to distinguish troops, warships and
warplanes massing on one’s borders for the purposes of conducting war
games from troops, warships and warplanes massing on one’s borders for
the purposes of an invasion, it is hardly surprising that the North
Koreans are agitated. And that’s the point: keep the DPRK on a
continual war-footing, so that it diverts its sanctions-starved
economy into military preparedness and away from productive
investments and provision of healthcare, education, housing and so on.
Joint US-South Korea military exercises aren’t just a sometimes thing.
They happen every year, and Operation Invincible Spirit adds another
provocation to the annual cycle.
Forcing its ideological opponents to spend heavily on defence — when
they always start off poorer and weaker than the United States and can
therefore ill-afford to do so if they’re ever going to progress — is a
tactic Washington has been using for decades to contain, cripple and
ultimately defeat countries that offer a humane and progressive
alternative to integration into a worldwide capitalist system of
On top of the advantages of this tactic abroad, at home the defence
spending needed to threaten target countries transfers wealth upwards,
from working Americans through their taxes to the investors and
businesspeople in the armaments industry who benefit in two ways:
first, from the profits they reap from arms contracts and second from
interest on the bonds they buy to finance US defence spending.
The tab is picked up by US taxpayers with their labour and, if a war
is waged against their country, by foreigners with their lives, or
with crippled standards of living, if their governments are forced to
skimp on civilian spending to build a credible defensive force to
deter the threat of US military intervention.
As the dues-payers for the US warfare economy along with its foreign
victims, US citizens have more in common with the citizens of official
enemy countries than they think.
Who’s the real enemy?
The tactic of spending ideological opponents into bankruptcy has two
dimensions: a physical one, of suffocating an alternative economy
until it either breaks down or is left staggering under the weight of
economic warfare and the costs of preparing to repel the unrelenting
ominous threat of military intervention, and an ideological one, of
attributing the break-down to the inherent characteristics of the
alternative system itself.
In this way a warning is sent on two levels: a surface one aimed at
ordinary people, which says, while this alternative may seem like a
good idea, it doesn’t work and only leads to disaster. To work, this
necessitates the cover up of the real causes of the break down.
At the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas on July 20, both
Clinton and US secretary of war Robert Gates, played up the message
that North Korea’s dire straits are endogenous, and not the product of
a systematic campaign of breaking the country’s back. Gates said:
"It is stunning to see how little has changed up there (in the North)
and yet how much South Korea continues to grow and prosper. The North
by contrast, stagnates in isolation and deprivation."
Clinton said much the same. Of course, neither mentioned that
sanctions, and the continual harassment of North Korea by US forces,
might have something to do with North Korea’s isolation and
On a deeper level, a warning is sent to would-be leaders of oppressed
classes and peoples: try to break free from the US imperial orbit, and
this will happen to you, too.
Forty years ago, Felix Greene outlined how Washington had used this
tactic against China and Cuba, but his description also fits North
"The United States imposed a 100 percent embargo on trade with these
countries; she employs great pressure to prevent her allies from
trading with them; she arms and finances their enemies; she harasses
their shipping; she threatens them with atomic missiles which she
announces are pre-targeted and pre-programmed to destroy their major
cities; her spy ships prowl just beyond these countries’ legal
territorial waters; her reconnaissance planes fly constantly over
their territory. And having done all in their power to disrupt these
countries’ efforts to rebuild their societies by means of blockades to
prevent essential goods from reaching them, any temporary difficulties
and setbacks these countries may encounter are magnified and
exaggerated and presented as proof that a socialist revolutionary
government is ‘unworkable’."
Author William Blum, who writes an Anti-Empire Report monthly,
elaborates on Greene’s point:
" . . . every socialist experiment of any significance in the
twentieth century — without exception — was either overthrown,
invaded, corrupted, perverted, subverted, destabilised, or otherwise
had life made impossible for it, by the United States and its allies.
"Not one socialist government or movement — from the Russian
Revolution to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, from Communist China to
the FMLN in El Salvador — not one was permitted to rise or fall solely
on its own merits; not one was left secure enough to drop its guard
against the all-powerful enemy abroad and freely and fully relax
control at home.
"It’s as if the Wright brothers’ first experiments with flying
machines all failed because the automobile interests sabotaged each
test flight. And then the good and god-fearing folk of the world
looked upon these catastrophes, nodded their heads wisely, and intoned
solemnly: Humankind shall never fly."
Cumings offered insight into the context surrounding the Cheonan
affair in a May 27, Democracy Now interview.
The incident, Cummings observed: "happened very close to the North
Korean border, we’ve had incidents like this, somewhat different ones,
but with large loss of life, going back more than 10 years.
"In 1999, a North Korean ship went down with 30 sailors lost and maybe
"That’s a larger total of casualties than this one. And last November,
a North Korean ship went down in flames. We don’t know how many people
died in that.
"This is a no man’s land, or waters, off the west coast of Korea that
both North and South claim. And the Cheonan ship was sailing in those
waters . . . "
The hypocrisy need not be pointed out.
When North Korean ships are sunk, there’s no provocation, except to
North Koreans, who, in the view of Western governments and the
propaganda apparatus of private-sector mass media, don’t matter (in
the same way Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas,
matters to Western governments and Western mass media while the
countless Palestinians who have been kidnapped by Israeli soldiers in
the West Bank and Gaza and have since disappeared into the bowels of
Israeli prisons are invisible.)
But when a South Korean ship is sunk in the same disputed waters,
North Korea is immediately blamed (by the politicians of South Korea’s
ruling Grand National Party, though not by the South Korean military,
which for weeks, said it had no evidence of North Korean involvement.)
And the sinking is used to justify more sanctions and more military
exercises to ratchet up the pressure.
Cumings went on to explain that the waters in which the South Korean
warship went down in May "is a no man’s land, where the US and South
Korea demarcated a so-called Northern limit line unilaterally. The
North has never accepted it.
"The North says that this area is under the joint jurisdiction of the
North and South Korean militaries. So you have an incident waiting to
Into this cauldron of roiling waters waiting for an incident to happen
will soon be tossed Operation Invincible Spirit.
While the Western media lighted on Amnesty International’s portrayal
of North Korea’s healthcare system as a horror show with the eagerness
of flies on road-kill, the World Health Organisation had a more sober
assessment of the rights organisation’s Cold War-era hatchet job.
WHO spokesman Paul Garwood faulted the report for being "mainly
anecdotal, with stories dating back to 2001, and not up to the UN
agency’s scientific approach to evaluating healthcare."
"All the facts are from people who aren’t in the country," Garwood
said. "There’s no science in the research."
In contrast, WHO Chief Margaret Chan visited North Korea in April and
returned with an assessment that makes Amnesty’s report look like it
was written to cater to US foreign policy propaganda requirements.
Chan noted that: "The health system requires further strengthening in
order to sustain the government policy of universal coverage and, of
course, to improve the quality of services. More investments are
required to upgrade infrastructure and equipment and to ensure
adequate supplies of medicines and other commodities, and to address
the correct skill mix of the health workforce."
All of this is consistent, in a way, with what Amnesty says.
Of course, the ability of the government to invest in infrastructure,
upgrade equipment, and secure adequate supplies of medicines, is
severely hampered by the US-led campaign of economic warfare and by
Pyongyang’s need to raid its civilian budget to secure its borders
against incessant US military harassment.
Lifting sanctions and removing the military sword of Damocles that
dangles menacingly above North Koreans’ collective heads (I wonder
whether the US nuclear missiles targeted on Pyongyang are, as Clinton
claims with sanctions, not directed at the North Korean people) would
go far to improving the provision of healthcare in North Korea.
Which is one big reason it will never happen.
The point of sanctions and unremitting military threat is to destroy
what the US government calls North Korea’s Marxist-Leninist system
(inaccurately) and its non-market economy, not to make life better,
healthier and happier for North Koreans.
Despite these challenges, DPR Korea appears to have secured what Chan
describes as "advantages over other developing countries," including:
--No shortage of doctors and nurses.
--No brain drain of healthcare professionals (a particularly acute
problem in Africa.)
--An elaborate health infrastructure and a developed network of
primary health care physicians. 
Chan also noted that "the government has done a good job in areas such
as immunisation coverage, effective implementation of maternal,
newborn and child interventions, in providing effective tuberculosis
treatment and in successfully reducing malaria cases."
Perhaps, the real story about North Korean healthcare isn’t the
challenges it faces, or the systematic efforts of the United States to
make it collapse, but the fact that it hasn’t collapsed despite these
challenges, and has managed to earn the praise of the WHO as the envy
of many developing nations.
Stephen Gowans is a Canadian writer and political activist resident in
Ottawa. This article is reproduced from http://gowans.wordpress.com
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