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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
A new North Korean travel company targeting foreign medical tourists has been established, ruling party daily the Rodong Sinmun reported Friday.
The Treatment Tourism Exchange Company (치료관광교류사) will work with the top government health bodies to offer foreign tourists the ability to receive surgeries and cosmetic procedures at top state-run hospitals, it said.
Tapping into additional segments of the tourist industry — which has not directly been targeted under UN and U.S. sanctions — is likely yet another way the country seeks to overcome trade restrictions and earn foreign currency.
The Friday article was published in the online version of the newspaper, but, notably, was absent from the print edition available to most North Koreans.
“It’s great to send tourists to view and enjoy the natural scenic attractions,” the article read, “but it would be better to also receive medical services in the tourism process.”
“This is why, following the growing worldwide trend, our country will meet this demand with the launch of the Treatment Tourist Exchange Company offering various hot springs resort facilities for domestic and international tourists.”
The company will also “provide treatment tourism attractions for foreign tourists through various centrally-managed hospitals.”
These include the Ryugyong General Ophthalmic Hospital, the Ryugyong Dental Hospital, and the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital Breast Tumour Institute.
“Tourists from abroad will be able to plentifully receive the services of [these] modern treatment facilities,” the article said, including “cataract surgery, dental implants, breast tumor treatment, and our people’s traditional medicine in Koryo medical treatment.”
The company is “carrying out preparations to successfully provide in the next year treatment tourism services at various resting facilities for foreign and domestic tourists, working closely with workers of the Ministry of Public Health and the State General Bureau of Tourism.”
The lack of access to cataract surgery for ordinary North Koreans has particularly been the subject of international attention in the past, most famously in a 2007 National Geographic documentary highlighting the work by Nepalese doctor Sanduk Ruit to perform the surgery on thousands in the country.
Even currently, the NGO KorAid Limited founded by veteran humanitarian aid worker Katharina Zellweger is annually providing materials and funding cataract surgery for thousands of North Koreans.
Also mentioned in Friday’s Rodong article as key health tourism attractions were the country’s various kinds of natural hot springs and mud baths.
The Rodong article said that “foreign and domestic tourists are [already] receiving various services” at these facilities, with “treatment tourism available for individuals, families, and groups.”
“Unlimited tourist packages according to demands of tourists range from 1 day/2 nights, 2 days/3 nights, etc.,” it added.
Some specific attractions were mentioned, such as “radon springs of Mt Paektu, Mt Kumgang, and the Mt Kuwol area,” “sulfur springs in the beautiful environment of the Mt Chilbo area,” and mud baths of Lake Sijung Sanatorium on the coast just south of Wonsan.
Not mentioned, however, were the country’s top current hot springs tourism construction projects at the Yangdok Hot Spring Resort and the Onpho Holiday Camp.
The Yangdok resort, which will provide health treatment services and even ski facilities as well, is still tentatively set to open sometime this month in time to serve winter seasonal tourists, though North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a visit last month appeared to express concerns over its timely opening.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Sogwang