Spat between Amnesty International and the World Health Organization over North Korea?

A day after Amnesty International issued a report on the state of North Korea’s healthcare system, a spokesman for the World Health Organization (WHO) defended the North’s system and called the Amnesty report unscientific. This after the Director General of the WHO, Margaret Chan, called [PDF] the North Korean healthcare system, “something which most other developing countries would envy,” after a visit in April.

Initial response? The people at the WHO need to spend a little more time handing out meds and a little less time taking them. Anyone calling the North Korean healthcare system the envy of anything has to be delusional.

Dig a little deeper though, and both sides have a point. First, the Amnesty report, with its information on surgeries performed without anesthesia, a limited availability of medicine, and doctors unable or unwilling to treat patients without bribes of food, cash, cigarettes, or booze, is hardly new. It is based on defector testimony widely available in the press, or simply by talking to defectors.

But, while useful and, most likely, an accurate reflection of conditions inside North Korea, is it scientific? Hardly. It’s not like Amnesty was able to send investigators into the North to verify the defector’s claims. They had to rely, like most such reports, on the defector’s honesty, plus comparing claims made by various defectors to see where the overlaps lie. Pretty much standard practice for journalists, cops, intel agencies, and the like. But, as per the WHO, that hardly makes it scientific. Score one for the WHO.

How then to explain the other comment, that the North’s healthcare system is the envy of the developing … (wow, the mind reels at even typing such nonsense) world? Ms. Chan, like so many others, appears to have caught a nasty case of Bruce Cummings Disease. A disease that renders the victim so lacking in judgment, and so worried about losing access to the North, that they will say just about anything to avoid offending the North and losing their visa. Viewed under this light, Ms. Chan’s comments are more excusable. Her goal is to save lives in North Korea by providing medical aid. If accomplishing that goal means the occasional nonsense quote to grease the wheels of access, who am I to quibble? How many lives was the WHO able to save through that kind of comment? If it’s more than one, who’s to argue?

While I may be too forgiving, that’s one way to understand the comments. Now, as for what Cummings’ excuse is …

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