Report: Healthcare horror stories from North Korea

Given how stubbornly Kim Jong-Il appears to be weathering his reportedly grave illness, you might think North Korean healthcare is more or less intact -- even the Dear Leader must get a boost from modern medicine. But a chilling report released today by Amnesty International is an all-too-clear reminder that the luxuries (or in this case, just the bare necessities) of royal treatment in Korea are a far cry from the horrors of everyday existence: based on the accounts of 40 North Korean defectors and health professionals, Amnesty investigators reveal just how backward the country's healthcare system truly is.

Drained of the most basic -- and most important -- resources (everything from pills to power), hospitals in North Korea are barely functional. Doctors make their rounds by candlelight, and patients endure major operations without even the mildest anesthesia. And that's only if the ailing can make it to a hospital in the first place: many patients must make many-hour treks to consult with their inept doctors -- appointments that invariably spell further trauma. One interviewee describes his harrowing amputation (anesthesia-free, of course):

Five medical assistants held my arms and legs down to keep me from moving. I was in so much pain that I screamed and eventually fainted from pain," said the man, identified only by his family name, Hwang. "I woke up one week later in a hospital bed.

Under North Korea's official health care program, all citizens are entitled to free medical treatment -- and state officials insist they truly receive it. Yet World Health Organization figures give the country a failing grade: North Korea spends less than one dollar per person per year on health -- a meager sum that makes it the world's worst performer.  First-person accounts in the report only confirm this picture. According to one defector and former doctor:

People in North Korea don't bother going to the hospital if they don't have money because everyone knows that you have to pay for service and treatment.

Without the right bribes - cigarettes, alcohol, or just plain cash -- most Koreans don't stand a chance. In short, says the doctor: "If you don't have money, you die.''



Say it ain't so, sumo!

Apparently, gambling and organized crime have become as entrenched in sumo wrestling culture as topknots and obesity.

Taking a page from the Gambino crime family, dozens of sumo wrestlers and their managers have admitted to betting on baseball games, mah jong, cards, and golf through gambling rings organized by the Yakuza -- the Japanese mafia. The Yakuza allegedly take a even more hands-on approach: sponsoring wrestlers and even positioning themselves in front-row seats at matches to communicate with their members in prison.

But this most recent scandal is especially embarrassing for the sumo industry -- the wrestlers are held to high moral and ethical standards, representing traditional values. The ancient sport which is believed to be at least 1500 years old, is part of the country's founding myth. (Imagine the shock when Americans discovered that Washington never actually chopped down the Cherry tree!)

And, in an unprecedented act of repentance, Hiroshi Murayama, the acting chief of sumo, stood among wrestlers inside the ring at this year's Grand Tournament in Nagoya, and apologized for the gambling scandals.