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[Opinion] Medical Relations Between N. Korea and France

Posted October. 30, 2008 09:19,   


Though many European countries have established diplomatic ties with North Korea since the historic 2000 inter-Korean summit, France continues to deny recognizing the North as a sovereign country. Officials in Paris cite the North’s human rights abuses as the reason for the denial. The two countries, however, have maintained a relationship on the medical front. France has shown generosity to the communist county when Pyongyang’s high-ranking officials have health problems by allowing them treatment in France. In 1994, then North Korean Defense Minister O Jin U was admitted to Laennec Hospital in Paris for lung cancer. Ten years later, the consort of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Ko Yong Hui, stayed in Paris for treatment of breast cancer.

The French newsweekly Le Point said a top French brain surgeon recently went to Pyongyang to treat Kim, so attention is being drawn to the medical cooperation between the two countries. Given that Kim’s eldest son Jong Nam publicly visited a Paris hospital last week, the report sounds credible. Le Point also said the head of neurosurgery at Paris` Sainte-Anne Hospital, Francois-Xavier Roux, an expert on aneurisms and brain tumors, left Paris for Pyongyang at the request of North Korea in August. Though Roux refused to confirm the report in an interview with AFP, he alluded to the possibility by saying he was in China.

France has a long-standing tradition of giving medical help to the needy even if the recipients are from a country Paris has no diplomatic relations with. Even when the West was at odds with Iraq after the first Gulf War of 1990, France secretly let in the then Iraqi vice prime minister for medical treatment. Despite mounting criticism at the time, the French government said the measure was carried out from a “humanitarian” point of view. North Korea is clearly taking advantage of this tradition and the tight confidentiality of both the French government and hospitals. As a Paris correspondent, this writer once managed to contact a doctor who treated Minister O over the phone, but failed to get any information on his condition.

Roux has become the most sought-after surgeons by worldwide media seeking information on Kim’s health. His movements might be tracked by intelligence officials. With his photo made public, he will find it difficult to shake off reporters and undercover agents. Due to their independent nature, North Korean officials have refused to rely on outside help from the beginning and seek aid at the last moment. For this reason, both O and Ko died soon after returning from Paris despite receiving cutting-edge medical treatment in the French capital. If Roux was sent to Pyongyang to treat Kim, it means Kim is in grave condition.

Editorial Writer Bhang Hyeong-nam (hnbhang@donga.com)