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North Korea forces STD tests for citizens returning from trips to China

Sean Patterson, ARP Sciences, LLC, quality management section DNA analyst, checks expiration dates on reagents in the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System – Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory. (Staff Sgt. Nicole Leidholm/U.S. Air Force)
November 02, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Authorities in North Korea are trying to prevent sexually transmitted diseases from entering the country and spreading by forcing citizens returning from China to undergo STD tests, residents told RFA’s Korean Service.

The residents say, however, that the initiative will be ineffective because those who test positive can still bribe their way into the country, and the tests do not address the spread of disease within North Korea itself.

“I was tested for STDs and AIDS right before I entered the country,” a source from Hamhung, South Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service on October 27.

The source, who last week had returned from a personal trip to the Yanji Autonomous Korean Prefecture in China’s Jilin province, exited China through the Sanhe customs office, and entered North Korea thorough Hoeryong customs office in neighboring North Hamgyong province.

“Blood tests are conducted on all incoming visitors, regardless of gender,” the source said.

The source detailed the immigration and testing process, saying that both hygiene and STD tests were a part of gaining entrance to North Korea.

“When entering the country, they usually ask simple questions regarding health problems,” said the source.

“After they enter the country and after the immigration process, residents are required to visit a local health and quarantine office to undergo an STD and AIDS test, [and wait] to be notified of the results,” the source said.

But the source revealed there are ways of forgoing the tests, or even if a test shows a positive result, entrance into the country is still very possible if the right palms are greased.

“The local health and quarantine office [sometimes] takes bribes and doesn’t even conduct the tests,” said the source.

“Even if a sexually transmitted disease is found [in testing], the relevant documents are removed and the authorities are not notified,” the source added.

The source said the North Korean STD rate is increasing, and health officials are alarmed because there is a shortage of proper STD medication in a country whose health care system nearly collapsed during the 1990s, when the country endured a famine and a shrinking economy after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, its long-time patron.

Another source, from Sinuiju, North Pyongan province, which borders the Chinese city of Dandong, told RFA that young North Korean women who reenter the country there are now often targeted by health officials, which is a break from the past, when they targeted people based on political or religious reasons.

“In the past, political tests were conducted to investigate whether people entering the country were involved in church life in China, or if they were in contact with ‘hostile elements’ there, like South Koreans,” said the second source.

“But now [authorities] are more strictly examining whether they had unhealthy sexual relations with Chinese,” the second source added.

The second source said that the authorities are trying to stop the spread of STDs silently, without publicly acknowledging STDs are a major problem.

“Although the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] has yet to disclose the rates of diseases like AIDS and syphilis, it has taken measures to address the health of people suffering from various STDs,” said the second source.

“[They’ve] increased testing for people traveling to and from China, because they believe that this is where the STDs are coming from,” added the second source.

But the source believes the increased testing on North Koreans will be ineffective in stopping STDs inside North Korea.

“In border areas facing China, like Sinuiju and [nearby] Ryongchon, there are many [North Korean] prostitutes that target Chinese people, so simple STD and AIDS tests cannot be an adequate precaution,” said the source.

Estimated prevalence of STDs

According to a report in the June edition of the U.S. journal Science, there were more than 8,300 HIV positive people in North Korea in 2018.

The report said that authorities claim there are no AIDS patients in the country, but the number has been on the rise since the country’s first reported case of the disease was reported in 1999.

Organizations outside North Korea are reportedly assisting with the treatment of North Korean AIDS patients.

Taehoon Kim, the executive director of New York-based nonprofit DoDaum, told RFA in July that he takes care of 3,000 such patients.

Kim said he works with North Korean healthcare authorities and supplies AIDS medication donated by U.S. pharmaceutical companies.

Par for the Course

Kim told RFA Tuesday that North Korean authorities routinely test many who are reentering the country.

“I would say not all, but workers who have been abroad get screened on a regular basis. This is especially true if the worker is from a region in North Korea where HIV prevalence is high,” he said.

Courtland Robinson of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore said that the emphasis on STD testing by North Korean authorities falls in line with previous practices in dealing with citizens who have traveled outside the reclusive country.

“I have not heard the news that North Koreans returning from the border need to undergo tests for STDs including HIV, but it is consistent with how the DPRK has treated returnees from China as essentially being “contaminated” with foreign diseases, foreign ideas [and the like],” said Robinson.