DPRK canned meat
MCC photo/Jennifer Deibert

A cook who works at a tuberculosis rest home in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as North Korea, prepares a meal for the patients at the facility. The director of the home says they really like the canned meat MCC sends there, and it helps them recover from the serious, infectious disease. Names are withheld for security reasons.

In the isolated country of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as North Korea, MCC canned meat is providing critical nourishment for thousands of people suffering from tuberculosis and hepatitis.

In partnership with its U.S.-based partner, Christian Friends of Korea (CFK), MCC helps meet up to 50 per cent of protein needs in the nearly 30 hospitals, rest homes and clinics the organization serves.

The director of a tuberculosis rest home, whose name and location can’t be named for security reasons, told MCC the canned meat is a valuable part of the patients’ diets. “For the treatment of TB patients, it is important to have the protein for recovery. Patients really need the canned meat,” he said. “The patients really like it very much!”

Patients staying in North Korean rest homes, hospitals and clinics who suffer from tuberculosis or hepatitis typically eat a meal like this, with MCC canned meat boiled into a soup. MCC photo/Jennifer Deibert

DPRK is a highly mountainous country with only about 18 per cent arable land. Many trees which once peppered the mountainsides have been cut down; their wood used for heating and cooking. The country often faces frequent flooding and damage to homes, bridges and other infrastructure from seasonal typhoons.

Estimates vary, but somewhere between 220,000 and 3 million people died in the mid to late 1990s from famine and related disease caused in part by catastrophic flooding and larger structural issues. Many more were so malnourished they became susceptible to infectious diseases.

To this day, citizens struggle to get enough to eat. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported in 2015 that 10.5 million North Koreans, or 41.6 per cent, were undernourished. In addition, 81 per cent of households surveyed in 2014 didn’t have access to enough nutrients, especially fats and proteins. Despite local community support, many of the facilities CFK serves are able to provide only a small fraction of the protein needed for patients.

Because access to protein locally is so limited, MCC volunteers in Canada and the U.S. can meat to ship overseas. Last year, more than one-quarter of all the meat MCC canned fed patients and those caring for them in DPRK.

A hepatitis care facility in DPRK grows its own persimmons to feed to patients. It also receives canned meat from MCC meeting up to 50 per cent of the protein needs of patients. The first door on the right leads to a pharmacy, while the next one leads to the kitchen where food is prepared. MCC photo/Jennifer Deibert

“It’s a really, really important support,” CFK executive director Heidi Linton said. “TB medications are hard on your liver and you need protein to support good liver function. Hepatitis patients’ livers are compromised because of the disease, so they need protein to be able to strengthen the liver and help it to recover.”

“Protein is medicine in one sense because they’re already malnourished and their bodies need protein in order to rebuild,” she added.

Linton says between 8,000 and 12,000 patients directly benefit from the canned meat each year.

In addition to the canned meat MCC sends to CFK to distribute at the care facilities, it also routinely includes blankets and school and relief kits.

These resources are stored in CFK’s warehouse in DPRK’s capital, Pyongyang, while awaiting routine distribution to care centres. They are also ready to be distributed on short notice when disaster strikes the region.

With files from Jennifer Deibert.

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