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Curing the 'hermit kingdom'

North Korean TB patients receive helping hand from Maryknoll priest
Curing the 'hermit kingdom'

Every six months, North Korean tuberculosis patients are given a physical examination, including an X-ray. (Photo: Eugene Bell Foundation)

Michael Sainsbury, Bangkok
April 4, 2016
At least twice a year, for the past 20 years, U.S. Father Jerry Hammond, has made the trip from his home in Seoul across the bleak demilitarized zone to the hermit kingdom of North Korea.

Fluent in Korean, the veteran Maryknoll priest, a spright 82 years old, who has lived in South Korea since 1960, is part of a close-knit team that spends three weeks each visit traversing the poverty-wracked nation dispensing much-needed medical aid for a disease that has been banished in many parts of the developed world: tuberculosis.

In most healthy people the immune system is able to destroy the bacteria that causes TB but the disease takes hold in places where people have low immune systems due to poor nutrition and disease, and spreads when people live in crowed conditions.

As such, TB is alarmingly rife in the Communist-run country. The infection rate is a frightening 442 per 100,000 people. This compares with other "high burden" TB countries that the World Health Organization (WHO) describes. In Myanmar, the rate is 53 per 100,000 people while in Cambodia the rate is 51 per 100,000. The two countries are among the poorest nations in Asia after North Korea.

So prevalent is the disease in North Korea that it has begun to mutate and become resistant to traditional TB drugs. A new strain known as multidrug-resistant TB — or Super TB as it is also known —  has emerged.

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Father Hammond began visiting North Korea after the country's government reluctantly let foreign aid groups in as famine gripped the land following the devastating 1994 drought that lasted four years and almost brought the nation to its knees.

"My first visits focused on the delivery of food," he told ucanews.com over coffee in Maryknoll's Korean headquarters in downtown Seoul.

"After that our trips became medical missions and today I bring medicine for patients with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis."

"We estimate there are at least 100,000 people with TB in North Korea right now," Father Hammond says. "And over the past 20 years we have treated between 250,000 and 300,000 people." In 2014 about 5,000 North Koreans died of tuberculosis according to a report released by the WHO.

Father Hammond is understandably proud that the group's success rate in completely curing their patients of TB is about 70 percent, a figure considerably higher than the global cure rate of 48 percent. He cites this as a key reason why North Korean authorities continue to let the group into the country to treat its citizens.

It's a painstaking exercise. Father Hammond travels to North Korea with workers from the Eugene Bell Foundation, a U.S.-based humanitarian organization named after a Presbyterian missionary who went to Korea in the late 19th century.

The group has to take the complex medical machines that can analyze sputum on the spot, using technology under an export license granted by the U.S. government to guide medical aid givers on infection and dosages. 

Father Hammond describes his work in the county as a "spiritual experience".

"You hear the cough of a tuberculosis patient who is vulnerable and afraid," Father Hammond says. "No words are permitted. You give him or her a cup of water and you take a sputum sample, the most contagious moment of the examination."

To set up the machinery and treat patients they need to spend eight hours at each of the dozens of places they visit over periods of about three weeks each time.

But while it has "only" been 20 years and 51 trips since he began visiting the isolated authoritarian nation, Father Hammond has decades of experience with people from the North. After he arrived in South Korea in 1960, Father Hammond moved to the countryside to work with refugees from the North — as well as those left with nothing in the South — to help rebuild rural communities using aid systems based on community credit unions.

It's in the North that the real roots of the Maryknoll Fathers' and Brothers' ministry lie, in the North Korean capital Pyongyang, a city that was such a beacon for Christian missionaries that it was known as the Jerusalem of the East. Maryknoll established its mission in Pyongyang in 1923 where it remained until the beginning of the Korean War.

"There is another motive for my visits," Father Hammond admits. "To venerate the Catholic martyrs including Maryknoll Bishop Patrick Byrne who perished in 1950 as a prisoner of the North Korean Communists."

Today, Father Hammond says it's hard to really know how many Christians are left in North Korea after almost 70 years of isolation from the rest of the world. Priests, brothers and nuns all were incarcerated by the Communist regime despite the fact that the wife of the country's original leader Kim Jong-il was a Presbyterian deaconess; tens of thousands are believed to have perished.

The Korean Communist Party runs the North Korean Catholic Association but it has no affiliation to Rome.

There is an official statistic of 3,000 Catholics in the country, but it's really a guessing game with other experts citing numbers as low as 800.

"I really don't think that there are many at all after all these years," Father Hammond says.

But for him, traveling to North Korea, and providing life-saving medicines is his form of "witness," he says.

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