‘Flower Tuberculosis’ in North Korea

Friday 5th June, 2015

In North Korea, the effects of tuberculosis  on women are likened to that of a withering flower.

Malnourished soldiers in South Pyongan Province in July, 2011,Photo by Gu Gwang-ho, South Pyongan Province, July 2011, from ASIAPRESS.ORG


Malnutrition is a major cause of disease and ill health in North Korea. Tuberculosis, among others, is a widespread disease. In comparison to other groups inside North Korea, tuberculosis is regarded as especially prevalent in the military. Sources inside North Korea informed New Focus that, “The number of North Korean soldiers who die as a result of tuberculosis has increased. When malnutrition is more severe, cases of tuberculosis become frequent.

“Tuberculosis can spread rapidly as it is a contagious disease. Even the strongest soldiers, once infected, can die from severe internal bleeding. Women are more susceptible to dying from the disease than men,” they report.

Chae Young-Hee, who served in the headquarters of the Pyongyang anti-aircraft artillery of the Korean People’s Army, and who escaped from North Korea in October 2014, says, “For people serving in the military, the most fortunate thing to happen to you is to avoid getting ill. If you get sick, treatment is almost impossible. You don’t even have cold medicines when you’re in the military.

he medicine that is rationed to the army is embezzled by medical officers, and the only medicine that is left are ones that are so old that they are covered in mold. In North Korea, the most common disease among soldiers is known as tuberculosis. Society considers tuberculosis medicine to be extremely valuable, and the price of tuberculosis medicine in North Korea is high.

“Those in North Korea who get tuberculosis prepare for death, rather than prepare for treatment. From mid-2007, the Korean People’s Army enlarged the scope of quarantine measures in order to prevent the spread of tuberculosis among soldiers.”

This is one indicator that cases of tuberculosis among the military has been increasing. Regardless of one’s ranking or military post, those infected with tuberculosis will be relocated to a special ward in a military hospital. The patients are placed in isolation, and contact with outsiders is strictly forbidden.

Besides such measures, however, no other treatment is provided, nor available. With the increasing number of tuberculosis patients, there is a lack of hospital beds to accommodate all of them. To solve this problem, the North Korean government discharges tuberculosis patients closest to death and sends them home, which they assert is the best option.

Patients who are able to return home are considered lucky. Many soldiers die before the situation can be controlled in even such a manner. Among the soldiers who succumb to death quickly, many are female. Tuberculosis causes their skin to become whiter, as the disease gradually worsens. And a brighter skin tone is considered to be a sign of beauty in North Korea, even though tuberculosis eventually causes death.

Chae explains, “At this point, patients begin to vomit blood. Death, at this stage, is quite near. It is difficult to determine whether a tuberculosis patient is a man or a woman, when trying to judge by outward appearance only. Why? Regardless of their gender, tuberculosis patients are forced to shave their head in order to hold consumption of nutrition down. Furthermore, as a result of malnutrition, women appear to have no breasts, which also makes it hard to determine their gender.

”The change in skin tone, however, is one way to differentiate between male and female patients quickly. Female tuberculosis patients have unusually milky white faces, when compared to men. We call their tuberculosis ‘flower tuberculosis’. This expression was coined to describe the patients because as the tuberculosis worsens, like a flower, the pretty face withers to death.”


Reporting by Lee, Cheol-mu.

Read in Korean.

Proudly in partnership with

Wednesday 8th March, 2017

North Korea is one of the few countries in the world where International Women’s Day is a national holiday – well, sort of. In North Korea, what the free world calls International Women’s Day...

Monday 19th December, 2016

In Korean language and society, honourifics are of utmost importance. The polite form ('jondaetmal') is used for those who demand or deserve respect. In South Korea, this often means somebody who...

Thursday 3rd November, 2016

As their financial situations worsen, 40-year-old North Korean mothers must sell their bodies to return home: an insight into North Korea's underground sex industry. North Korea’s informal e...

Monday 19th September, 2016

High school students have been asked to spy on one another during a new round of propaganda lectures early September. The North Korean state began a round of propaganda lectures in schools in e...