Does Acupuncture Work As Anesthesia For Surgery?

The scary facts an award-winning reporter learned from a doctor who escaped from North Korea

Janice Harayda
2 min readAug 6, 2022


Acupuncture needles / Credit: AANMC

Books about dictatorship are booming. After the election of Donald Trump, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarian began selling at 16 times the usual rate, and a torrent of books about tyrants has followed.

The standouts include Those Who Forget: My Family’s Story in Nazi Europe (Scribner, 2020). A European Book Prize winner, this nonfiction account melds history and memoir as the journalist Géraldine Schwarz views contemporary far-right movements through the lens of her German grandfather’s Nazi Party membership.

A decade earlier came the remarkable Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Spiegel & Grau, 2010). In a National Book Award finalist, the journalist Barbara Demick tells the true stories of residents of North Korea who escaped by forging passports, bribing border guards, or using other cloak-and-dagger techniques.

Demick includes an especially memorable portrait of a doctor she calls Kim Ji-eun, who worked in a small hospital during the crippling famine in the 1990s. She interviewed Kim about North Korean medicine, including the use of acupuncture for anesthesia, and writes in Nothing to Envy:

“For years, North Korean hospitals had been using herbal remedies in combination with Western medicine. Instead of painkillers, the doctors used cupping, a technique in which a suction cup is applied to stimulate circulation to parts of the body. Another technique borrowed from the Chinese involved lighting sticks of mugwort next to the afflicted area. With anesthesia in short supply, acupuncture would be used for simpler surgeries, such as appendectomies.

“‘When it works, it works very well,’ Dr. Kim told me years later. And when it didn’t? Patients would be strapped to the operating table to prevent them from flailing about.”

@janiceharayda is an award-winning journalist and critic whose work has appeared in many print and online media.

Here’s more on the books by Demick and Schwarz and by other authors of noteworthy accounts of authoritarian regimes:



Janice Harayda

Critic, novelist, award-winning journalist. Former book editor of the Plain Dealer and book columnist for Glamour. Words in NYT, WSJ, and other major media.