A few weeks ago, a friend of mine said she would never ever visit North Korea, because her rights could be taken away at any time, and there was no rule of law to protect her if anything went wrong. That’s true, but it’s only relevant if you do anything to disrespect the state and its revered leaders (like refusing to bow to Kim Il Sung in the mausoleum and his public statues in an act of self-subordination to the state, regardless of your beliefs). Otherwise, it’s very unlikely any harm will come to you. I told her the story of my visit to the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital.
When I was planning my North Korea itinerary with Koryo Tours, I was handed a menu (literally) of designated tourist spots to choose from. I chose to visit the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital (oh, and also to watch the world-record Arirang Mass Dance performance). I mean, where else in the world would a maternity hospital be a major tourist attraction? Of course, all of Pyongyang was a staged showcase of North Korean privileges and life that didn’t exist. Visiting North Korea was all about seeing past their showcase and trying to piece together the reality. I thought it might be hard to pull off a maternity hospital. And it was. This was what I saw.
1. There were 9 floors in the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital. We were only allowed on one floor.
The rest were wards, and there was nothing interesting to see, we were told. This one magical floor had one X-ray machine, one dental clinic, one nursery, one ward, one lab… Just one, of everything, and they all looked unused, squeaky clean, and generally free of patients. I got this one picture perfect shot of the head of the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital in the dental clinic.
She wasn’t posing. She looked like that all the way, like a flawless actress. Which brings me to point #2.
2. The head of the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital and head doctor took my friend and I around for a 2.5h tour of the hospital.
I know. They took an entire morning to take 2 insignificant and undistinguished guests around the hospital. They even sat down with us for an hour at the end to answer our questions. I was pretty sure that either they weren’t the real thing, or they were real but the hospital wasn’t…Or both.
3. I was told that a section of the nursery room, where there were about 10 babies, was strictly for the multiple births babies.
When twins, triplets, or quadruplets are born, it is considered a sign of good luck for the state. As a result, I was told that they got special treatment from birth: a separate nursery for extra care after birth, and special education in a separate school. The ENTIRE section was filled with babies – all 10 beds. I asked how many multiple births there had been since the establishment of the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital in the 1980s. I was told there had been 5. Oh, so several of them were in that room, born in the same year at the same time. North Korea must have been expecting a lucky year. But 3 months after our visit, Kim Jong Il passed on.
4. We visited 2 “mothers” and their newborns in their ward.
So these 2 mums looked pretty awake and fresh post-partum, and they sat cross-legged and in picture-perfect positions, a cool arms’ length away from their babies, who were in cots. There didn’t seem to be any desire to cuddle their babies. They didn’t behave like the babies were really theirs. I couldn’t be sure. I uttered a hesitant “congratulations”, and it was so awkward in the room, that we just left.
5. After the tour, we were shown a video and invited to ask questions about the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital.
The tour ended in a VIP guestroom with huge comfortable sofas. We were shown a nationalistic propaganda video extolling the generosity and benevolence of Kim Il Sung, who built the hospital. That video was made when Kim Il Sung was alive (he died in 1994). So, that meant that the video was more than 17 years old.
6. They didn’t know what contraception was, and there were no abortions.
Of course, I knew that contraception and abortion weren’t real problems in North Korea. People were starving in North Korea. If you did anything out of line, you were probably sent to the concentration camps along with the rest of your family to die. The choices for abortion and contraception definitely did not exist in a world as unfree as North Korea. I just wanted to see how they thought about these things. I don’t think the head of the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital and her head doctor sidekick was really prepared for the onslaught of questions that were unleashed upon them. It went something like this:
Me: So, who gets to come to this hospital? Any woman? What if they don’t live in Pyongyang? And what about postnatal care?
Them: Yes, everyone is welcome. It is because our Great Leader Kim Il Sung wanted to build this hospital for everyone. The Pyongyang Maternity Hospital is the best in the country. We allow the patients to deliver their first babies here, and to come back for follow-up visits for 6 months.
Me: Wow. So if a woman has another child, she can’t come back here?
Them: We encourage them to go to our regional hospitals, which are very good as well.
Me: What if they are having a difficult second pregnancy? Can they come back here?
Them: Oh yes, they can come back here. (Sounds inconsistent…)
Me: And what if a woman decides she doesn’t want her baby? Do you help them with that?
Them: No, it is not possible that a woman wouldn’t want her baby. There is no such case.
Me: But what if it’s dangerous for her to have the baby?
Them: There is no such thing.
Me: What about contraception? Do you help to give out contraceptives at the hospital?
Them: (confused look by my translator) We don’t understand what you mean. A woman would always want to have a baby.
This went on for more than an hour, with more inconsistencies than I can recall, the more questions got answered. I was prepared to stop asking questions anytime my guide stopped me, as I did not want her or us getting into any trouble. My guide was my translator. So I asked as many questions as I wanted to, and let my guide and the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital administrators decide what they wanted to translate and let on.
The concept of a maternity hospital itself was absurd, and served as the biggest proof that the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital was entirely staged to impress upon foreigners how advanced healthcare was in North Korea. Maternity hospitals only exist in first world countries, where there is enough quality and accessible healthcare that specialized hospitals can be opened.
Have you ever been to the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital? What was your experience there like? I’d love to hear from you!
P.S. Here are a couple of interesting videos I took in North Korea.