Out of Breath
Saving lives in the world's most secretive state
In rural North Korea, a film crew follows a small group of international volunteers fighting the spread of Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis. Working with North Korean medics, the volunteers venture deep into the world’s most secretive nation, overcoming cultural and political hurdles to save lives.
According to WHO, North Korea has one of the highest numbers of MDR-TB cases in the world. Highly infectious and difficult to treat, MDR-TB causes progressive destruction of the lungs. Hyuna is married to Stephen Linton, the founder of the Eugene Bell foundation, an NGO who have been working alongside the North Korean government for over twenty years to provide essential medicine and equipment to help combat the disease. They visit MDR-TB centres in North Korea every six months, placing them among a tiny number of foreigners granted access to North Korea’s rural heartland. What they and their volunteers encounter is unlike anything they have seen elsewhere. “My husband always explains to the employees that it’s like planning for a trip to outer space”, says Hyana. “We’re going to space, so we must prepare for everything.”
The volunteers work alongside North Korean doctors, nurses and pharmacists to help treat their patients. Putting aside their cultural differences, they work towards the same aim of treating and caring for their patients. North Korean pharmacist Park Ryunhee’s motivation, much like the volunteers, is to help the unwell: “I could have chosen a different job, but I wanted to do my part in this most difficult and exhausting area.”
Together, the volunteers and local teams oversee some remarkable recoveries: Kim Taesung weighed just 95 pounds when he was first admitted to an MDR-TB centre. He was so debilitated by his illness that he could barely stand or breathe. Six months later and after a course of powerful drugs, Kim is a man transformed: “My fever dropped and my head cleared up. I’m glad I always feel alert now.”
For Stephen Linton, the biannual expeditions represent a rare chance for collaboration and even friendship between North Korea and the outside world. “When you’re dealing with North Korea or any independent culture, as an outsider you’re sort of pulling two worlds together.” Indeed, many of the volunteers form unexpected and profound bonds with their hosts. Working together for a decade, Hyuana and Dr. Im Sonhee, a North Korean doctor, have become close friends. “I remember Dr. Im touching my cheek and saying, “Don’t get sick”. My heart felt so heavy. I realised how much she worries about us...That kind of warmth is special.”