NKorea launches telemedicine network with WHO help

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea formally launched a medical videoconference network Tuesday aimed at giving smaller, rural hospitals access to specialists in the capital Pyongyang with the help of the World Health Organization.

WHO has been providing cameras, computers and other equipment to North Korea to help the reclusive, impoverished country connect a main hospital in Pyongyang with medical facilities in 10 provinces. The system is designed to allow doctors to talk to each other to provide additional services to rural patients.

On Tuesday, North Korean health officials and visiting WHO Director-General Margaret Chan held the formal inaugural ceremony for the system at the Kim Man Yu hospital in Pyongyang, according to footage from broadcaster APTN.

"This is an excellent vision because it meets the needs of the government," Chan said.

Chan, clad in a white gown, later tested the system by talking with provincial doctors via video link.

One unidentified doctor at Jagang province, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of Pyongyang, told Chan he is satisfied with the system because it's too far for his patients to visit specialists in the capital.

She arrived in Pyongyang on Monday, becoming the U.N. agency's first chief to visit the communist country since 2001.

The North faces chronic food shortages and has relied on outside assistance to feed much of its population of 24 million since a famine is believed to have killed as many as 2 million people in the 1990s. The North also faces a shortfall of hospitals and lacks an efficient state health care system.

WHO opened its office in Pyongyang in 2001 and has coordinated the purchase of medical equipment and supplies for North Koreans. The world's health body says on its Web site that it is currently focusing on strengthening the North's health infrastructure.

On Monday, the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency said the government held a reception for Chan, who arrived the same day as Red Cross and Red Crescent officials. It was not clear whether the visits were connected.

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Associated Press writer Sangwon Yoon in Seoul contributed to this report.