Health Diplomacy: a multilateral infectious disease control program as a new engagement policy towards Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).


Despite its limitations, the Sunshine Policy, established in 1998 by the South Korean government under the presidency of Dae Jung Kim, is associated with an unprecedented level of dialogue between the two Koreas at the level of government and civil society organizations.  Since it was repealed in 2008, no clear alternative policy has been proposed.  Recent years have witnessed an escalating tension between the two Korean governments, and a new engagement strategy is urgently needed to ensure peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia.

Feasibility of health diplomacy with North Korea has been demonstrated by two encouraging cases of infectious disease control/prevention initiatives.  Since  2007, a group from Stanford University, UNICEF and the Christian Friends of Korea have been successfully collaborating with the DPRK Ministry of Public Health, resulting in the country’s first national reference laboratory for tuberculosis (TB) and multidrug-resistant TB – a significant public health concern in Northeast Asia. Moreover, the International Vaccine Institute (IVI) has been collaborating with DPRK to develop the capacity for diagnosis and surveillance for Japanese encephalitis and Haemophilus influenzae type B.

The South Korean government is already one of the major donors to UNICEF and IVI.  Moreover, the recent re-opening of the Kae Song industrial park demonstrates its recognition of the importance of strategic collaboration with North Korea.  However, these important efforts are being made without a clear policy context.  Time is ripe for the South Korean government to re-calibrate its on-going partnerships with UNICEF, IVI and DPRK within the framework of health diplomacy.  The potential gains are significant in prevention and control of infectious diseases such as MDR-TB in the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia.  Importantly, the South Korean government will have created an opportunity for itself to play a lead role in  improving the regional security and cooperation.

Incidence of TB in Three Northeast Asian Countries, 2009. Source: WHO Global TB Report, 2010

Incidence of TB in Three Northeast Asian Countries, 2009. Source: WHO Global TB Report, 2010


National TB Reference Laboratory, DPRK, /4/2011-02-Perry-KEI-Tuberculosis-Control.pdf

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