The population in North Korea is growing
The Japanese coast guard discovered eight bodies on Monday in a brittle wooden boat, some of them were almost entirely skin and bones. The surf had washed the boat on the coast of Oga near Akita.
A little further south, at the Yurihonjo pier, the police had picked up eight North Koreans in distress the previous week. Her wooden boat was no longer steerable and was also washed ashore. The eight men weren't deserters, they wanted to go back to North Korea. Their rotten ship, which was moored at the end of the pier, has since disappeared: the police assume that strong waves would have torn it away, then it would have sunk.
A few days earlier, the coast guard had also rescued and repatriated three shipwrecked people from a capsized North Korean fishing cutter. However, twelve members of that crew have been lost to this day.
Especially in autumn, such so-called ghost boats are regularly washed up on Japan's northwest coast. Many without a crew, others with rotting bodies on board, such as the boat found on Monday. In 2014 there were 65 cases, in 2013 even 80.
The ships, mostly only about ten meters long, are not suitable for fishing on the open sea. They were only used for escape attempts in isolated cases, and if these inmates survive, Japan will transfer them silently to South Korea. Most of the North Koreans who are washed ashore on the ghost boats are simple fishermen: their cooperatives cannot afford new seaworthy ships.
The broken fishing boats say a lot about the state of the country as a whole: When the north of Korea was liberated by the Japanese colonizers in 1945, it was one of the most developed regions in Asia. But like other dictatorships in the Soviet sphere of influence, the Kim clan neglected the infrastructure. North Korea's railways still run on tracks from the 1930s. Until recently, even with pre-war Japanese steam locomotives. Only about 730 kilometers of North Korea's roads are paved. Energy supply and communication have also been neglected: the 25 million North Koreans have around 1.2 million landline telephone connections - even fewer than the roughly three million cell phones that are now available.
Most of the refugees suffer from multiple parasite infestations
The health system in the north is also falling into disrepair, as recently demonstrated by the investigation of the North Korean soldier who was seriously injured by gunfire on his flight to the south the week before last: the 24-year-old was infected with parasites, the doctors pulled dozens of roundworms from his small intestine, he suffered from other parasitoses, hepatitis B and tuberculosis.
Those doctors in South Korea who regularly look after defectors from the north were not surprised. Most of the refugees suffer from multiple parasite infestations. The doctors conclude from this that most of the North Korean population has been wormed. Like the state distribution of food, the health system has collapsed. This is confirmed by an investigation by Amnesty International. Life expectancy in the north of 70.7 years is twelve years shorter than in South Korea.
Amnesty reported that the hospitals lacked essential equipment and medicines, and many did not even have running water. They would not be heated in winter. The medical staff hardly get their already bad wages anymore, so they want to be paid for every treatment. However, many people couldn't afford it. From conversations with refugees, Amesty also concluded that North Koreans were shocking ignorance of health issues. In rural areas in particular, undernourishment and malnutrition were a burden on health, as was poor hygiene. Amnesty estimates that North Korea spends less money per capita on its healthcare system than any other country: not even a dollar a year.
Free health care was once North Korea's pride. Larger factories had their own clinic, vaccination campaigns and regular mandatory examinations were free. In theory, this is still the case today, but with the famine in the mid-1990s, the structures collapsed. The refugees told Amnesty that they had to pay for operations and treatments that required technical equipment such as X-ray machines. Either with money or in kind - preferably cigarettes or alcohol, which act as informal currency. The refugees expressed understanding for the doctors.
The soldiers are malnourished
However, dictator Kim Jong-un has apparently recognized that the infrastructure needs to be rehabilitated. He has residential complexes and power plants built, schools refurbished and even the free markets that the regime tolerates to expand. To this end, he has built amusement parks and a ski station, the latter explicitly also for foreign tourists. The military infrastructure is also being renewed.
But rehabilitating North Korea - even if sanctions were lifted, the country opened up and received unlimited aid - will be a mammoth task for a whole generation. Kim can only support individual prestige projects. Especially since the ailing transport infrastructure, which his father and grandfather neglected for decades, hinders any renovation.
The soldiers in particular are malnourished and undernourished. They belong to the minority who have no way of making money on the gray market. It sounds almost ironic that the West considers the impoverished, collapsing country to be one of its greatest threats.
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