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North Korean house calls

Traffic passes Lipo Long Hua Hospital morning in Phnom Penh
Traffic passes Lipo Long Hua Hospital yesterday morning in Phnom Penh where two North Korean nationals are employed as doctors. Eli Meixler

North Korean house calls

At first glance, Lipo Long Hua Hospital, a beige, three-storey building flanked by palm trees on Street 215, looks like any other local clinic. But the unassuming facade hides something far less commonplace: two doctors flown in from North Korea.

The Chinese-owned hospital is said to be the second in the Kingdom – the other is in Siem Reap – to employ medical professionals from the pariah state, which is accused of grave human rights abuses and whose health care system is in a dire state.

The husband and wife pair of doctors were added to Lipo Long Hua’s roster of mostly Cambodian and Chinese staff in September as part of an effort to appeal to the Korean-speaking community in the capital, interviews with patients, staff and diplomats reveal.

“Yes, in our hospital we also have North Korean doctors,” a receptionist said flatly this week, handing over a business card which boasted of 24-hour service and equipment including a CT scanner.

North Korea’s vast overseas workforce – encompassing waitresses and manual labourers as well as doctors – exists to funnel money back to the cash-strapped totalitarian regime. The Pyongyang government, which seeks to develop nuclear weapons, is subject to stringent international sanctions due to its policy of denying basic freedoms and brutalising opponents in forced labour camps.

According to a locally based diplomat not authorised to speak to the press, the Lipo Long Hua hires, as well as some in a hospital in Siem Reap that could not be independently confirmed, were arranged through representatives of North Korean recruitment firms operating with relative freedom in Cambodia.

An unlikely alliance with Pyongyang was forged by the former King Norodom Sihanouk, who counted Kim Il-sung, the iron-fisted father of communist North Korea, among his closest confidantes. The Post revealed in October that the North Korean Embassy in Phnom Penh was leased rent-free by Sihanouk in 1991 for a period of 20 years. The agreement expired in 2011, but the Koreans stayed put.

Although the government has in recent years cosied up to the South, a major donor to the country, the five Pyongyang-run restaurants operating in Phnom Penh are among remnants of its traditional allegiance. Two more eateries have opened in Siem Reap, where the hermit nation has also built a $10 million museum.

When it came to light last year that North Korean workers employed to build Qatar’s World Cup 2022 stadiums had all or most of their wages siphoned off by the regime, human rights organisations condemned the arrangement as “state-sponsored slavery”.

The doctors at Lipo Long Hua receive just $200 of their $1,000 monthly paycheck, with $800 sent to Pyongyang, according to a patient who said the pair had “smoothly revealed” they were North Korean.

“I have no belief in North Korean doctors,” said the patient. “But it was a little better than the local [Cambodian] clinics.”

In 2010, Amnesty International painted a grim picture of North Korea’s medical system, reporting that patients were forced to undergo major surgery without anesthesia and that hospitals lacked sterilised needles, clean water, food and medicine. Last year, the Guardian reported that citizens self-medicated with methamphetamines.

“Currently, most hospitals suffer from severe shortages of pain killers and antibiotics, with the possible exception of hospitals catering to the elites,” wrote Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, in an email.

The locally based diplomat said that because Cambodia has a shortage of doctors, “they [the North Korean government] think it’s a good market”.

The human rights abuses committed against overseas North Korean workers have been widely documented. The exclusively female staff of the worldwide Pyongyang restaurant chain are reportedly forbidden to leave the grounds and forced to rehearse dance routines until the early hours of the morning.

But for South Koreans, the North Korean presence in Cambodia in places like Lipo Long Hua and the Pyongyang-run restaurants presents a rare opportunity to mingle with their counterparts from the other side of the border. One regular at the North Korean eateries said he had become friendly with the waitresses.

“We are afraid of each other but, as time passes, we get closer,” he said.

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