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North Korea: improving care for the disabled

03-03-2004 Feature

The ICRC's orthopaedic centre near Pyongyang has provided limbs for some 850 people since it opened in 2002. Most of the patients were victims of accidents at home or at work, or on the road – like Li Dong Su and Kim Chol Ko.


A technician at the Song Rim centre works on an artificial limb.Photo R. Sidler/ICRC, ref. kp-e-00001 
In October 2002 Li Dong Su was fitted with an artificial leg especially made for him at the ICRC limb-fitting centre in Song Rim, a town of 14,000 inhabitants about 30 km south of Pyongyang, the capital of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea.
Li Dong Su’s left leg was crushed by a boulder 30 years ago while he was serving as a volunteer on a tunnel-boring project. Today, aged 51, he works at the Kim Man Yu hospital in Pyongyang. A gland specialist, he puts the same painstaking care into his work as his fellow doctors do, and is subjected to the same constraints, despite having lost a leg.
It takes a practiced eye to notice his slightly lopsided gait as he goes from room to room, giving consultations to the patients in his unit. Over time his disability has become more manageable as a result of the technical improvements that have been made to artificial limbs, especially as concerns the rotating movement of the knee.  

  Kim Chol Ko learns to walk again at the Song Rim centre.Photo R. Sidler/ICRC, ref. kp-e-00002 
 Exploding gas cylinder

As for Kim Chol Ko, she will soon be able to return to her family. Three years ago, this 17-year-old girl had to have her left leg amputated after it was badly burned by the explosion of a gas cylinder.

Antero Kinnunen, the Finnish head of project, Solenne Chupin, the French physiotherapist, and Unni Mollan, the Norwegian orthopaedic technician, give their young patient various exercises to do put her new limb under stress and then they closely watch her movements. Some final adjustments may have to be made before she leaves Song Rim, where she will have spent six weeks in all.

Kim Chol Ko’s presence has meant a lot to the centre’s 50 other patients. Her eternal smile and unfailing good humour, the perseverance she has put into regaining her mobility and the squeals she lets out whenever she loses a game of cards will always be associated in their minds with the time they spent at Song Rim.

Under the supervision of Gerd Toeppner, the ICRC’s German builder, work is constantly being carried out to extend and renovate the buildings of this former umbrella factory, where 40 Koreans, including 16 technicians, are currently employed.

 Report by Roland Sidler