GENEVA — The World Health Organization found itself Friday in the strange position of defending North Korea's health care system from an Amnesty International report, three months after WHO's director described medicine in the totalitarian state as the envy of the developing world.
WHO spokesman Paul Garwood insisted he wasn't criticizing Amnesty's work, but the public relations flap illustrated an essential quandary for aid groups in unfree states: how to help innocent people without playing into the hands of their leaders.
Amnesty's report on Thursday described North Korea's health care system in shambles, with doctors sometimes performing amputations without anesthesia and working by candlelight in hospitals lacking essential medicine, heat and power. It also raised questions about whether coverage is universal as it — and WHO — claimed, noting most interviewees said they or a family member had given doctors cigarettes, alcohol or money to receive medical care. And those without any of these reported that they could get no health assistance at all.