Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week’s question is:
Je-son, you previously wrote a column on pets. Are there any veterinarians in North Korea?
I’m not sure if veterinary hospitals exist in Pyongyang and other regions of North Korea. But while I was growing up in North Korea, I never saw any veterinarians or animal hospitals in my hometown. There’s a possibility that there are some animal hospitals in Pyongyang, though, and I can’t say that there aren’t any elsewhere in North Korea.
Now, while people don’t talk about veterinarian clinics in the North, that doesn’t mean that veterinarians don’t exist in North Korea. During the Great Famine, North Korea tried to overcome their food shortages by breeding a large number of animals that live on grass. That’s when vets rose to prominence in the North. Most vets seen in the public eye at that time were all wearing thick glasses and they looked like giant geeks. Vets in TV dramas or movies were no different. The vet characters were far from creative or flexible. In films, they merely wrote prescriptions for sick animals in need of treatment.
Most vets seen in the public eye at that time were all wearing thick glasses and they looked like giant geeks
By contrast, in those stories young creative people in the neighborhood came up with a better way to treat the animals and they rose to become heroes. That was the story of such movies and TV dramas.
Though animal hospitals were hard to find, vets studied and took examinations at institutions. On TV, I saw vets visiting sick animals to treat them at homes and farms. I have no way of knowing whether such a system exists in every neighborhood in North Korea. I only saw them on TV. I’ve never seen such a thing in person while I was living in North Korea.
Of course, some dogs and pigs fell ill in my neighborhood. Under such circumstances, people went to doctors rather than vets. In North Korea, as long as you have money, you can buy pills and medicine that you need at the market without a doctor’s prescription. When your animal or pet falls ill, people buy penicillin and inject it into the animal. If the animal doesn’t get better even after the injection, then they go to seek help from doctors.
I grew up in an urban city and there were no farms nearby. That could be a reason why I haven’t seen or met a single vet while I was living in North Korea. Yet, some families in my city kept several pigs and dogs. I don’t have any memory of contagious disease breaking out among the animals, but there were occasions when a male pig’s urge to mate would get out of control. In such cases people would get a doctor to come and partially castrate the pig. On the same evening, men in the town would have drinks with the pig’s testicle as a side dish. Dads in my old hometown used to say it was the perfect food to go with drinks.
DOCTORS … FOR ANIMALS?
As I’ve seen veterinarians on North Korean television, I assume that there would be medical schools for students who wish to become veterinarians in North Korea. But I never met anyone who studied veterinary medicine while I was in North Korea. I didn’t hear of any vet schools while I was in the North, either. I can only assume that there would be one or two in Pyongyang.
Maybe I wasn’t able to meet any veterinarians in North Korea because it isn’t common for people to have pets there. Instead of small dogs such as a Maltese, big ones such as shepherd dogs are more commonly found in North Korea. Shepherd dogs are not only expensive to buy, but it’s expensive to feed them the meat they need.
Therefore, you have to be rich to have shepherds. Ordinary North Koreans usually keep mutts to watch the house or to eat as boshintang. When mutts fall ill, people would rather eat them than provide treatment for them. They don’t usually go see a veterinarian, even if their dogs become ill.
North Koreans would probably think that it’s nuts to take your dog to a veterinarian when there’s a shortage of physicians for people
North Koreans would probably think that it’s nuts to take your dog to a veterinarian when there’s a shortage of physicians for people. They don’t understand how you can spend so much money on going to a veterinarian for your dog. When North Koreans hear of the existence of veterinarians in other countries, they think it is only possible because these are capitalist countries. They assume that people seek help from a vet in a capitalist market not because they care so much about their dogs or that the dogs have become a part of their family but because money can buy anything in a capitalist market.
When I first arrived in South Korea, I laughed so hard at the wide prevalence and existence of animal hospitals in South Korea. In North Korea, I was told that nothing is impossible in a capitalist market as long as you have money. Me and my friends often imagined how life in a capitalist society would be different from our lives in a communist state. In North Korea, we couldn’t even imagine taking our dog to a veterinary clinic. Animal hospitals only existed in our imagination. Suddenly, they were everywhere in South Korea.
That’s when I finally realized that I was living in a capitalist society. To me it was interesting to witness with my own eyes that money could buy anything in capitalism. At the same time, I was confused and daunted about what unpredictable future ahead of me. Several years have passed since then. I have a poodle at my home now. It breaks my heart when my poodle gets sick. I realize that veterinarians exist for you to make sure your companion animal, which has become a precious member of your family, gets the care it needs.
The above is the perspective of the author, and may not be representative of all North Korean defectors.
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Editing by Rob York and translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Adam Westerman