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A first-hand look at the situation of children in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

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UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy (centre) and UNICEF Representative in the DPRK Pierrette Vu Thi (fourth from right) join students outside the UNICEF-assisted Kangan Primary School in the district of Sonkyo in Pyongyang, the capital.

PYONGYANG – UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy went to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)  to look first-hand at the situation of children in this isolated and embattled country. 

"It's much better than when I was here back in 1997," she said. "More vitality on the streets of the capital, healthier children, and much more action for children. But I can see that there are still enormous challenges."

Ms. Bellamy left the DPRK yesterday, Tuesday, 15 March, 2004, and will be holding a press conference in Seoul, the Republic of Korea on Wednesday, 17 March, 2004. She plans to discuss the results of UNICEF's support work in the DPRK and the challenges that remain.

UNICEF’s work in the DPRK focuses on many areas:

  • Treating severely malnourished children
  • Preventing micro-nutrient deficiencies among children and pregnant and lactating women
  • Immunizing children and pregnant women
  • Supporting water supply and purification, and
  • Improving the caring practices and promoting early childhood development at the household level as well as in nurseries, kindergartens and orphanages; plus improving the physical environment of and supply of materials to primary and secondary schools

Asking the right questions

Ms. Bellamy was escorted throughout her three-day visit by members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as UNICEF staff who live and work in North Korea full time. During her trip she also met with the President and the Ministers of Health and Education.

She spent time visiting schools, a children's hospital, a nursery, a factory that produces therapeutic food for malnourished children (UNICEF supplies vitamins and minerals that fortify the food), and a water supply system built by UNICEF. 

Ms. Bellamy asked many questions during her visits to these locations. While on a tour of one school she inquired if meals are provided to the schoolchildren. The answer was no, the children eat lunch at home as they attend school in morning and afternoon shifts.

Food shortage is still a problem for many children of the DPRK. Malnutrition levels are still high, despite notable improvements in child nutrition since the height of the famine in 1997.
Forty-two per cent of children under seven years of age are stunted and 70,000 acutely malnourished children are at mortal risk.

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© UNICEF/HQ04-0162/Horner
Two boys outside the Ministry building in Pyongyang, the capital.

Getting food and water to those in need

During a visit to factory that produces therapeutic food, Ms. Bellamy was told that the food produced there is sent to paediatric hospitals in every district, ensuring that the children in the greatest need of the food receive it. The procedure is supervised by an officer from the Ministry of Health, who has an office on the factory grounds.

A visit to a new water station raised the question of how this improved station has helped lower the incidence of disease among children. “Are the kids who get this water healthier than the kids who drink water from the old system?” inquired Ms. Bellamy.

The answer was yes. According to the local hospital there have been far lower incidences of disease, such as diarrhoea, among the children who are provided with water from the new station. 

Facing challenges; getting results

At a local children’s hospital, Ms. Bellamy learned that when mothers bring their children in for treatment, they receive information about better nutrition practices. Doctors said that the link between the severity of an illness and a child’s state of nutrition is so strong that they treat both problems at the same time.

At every stop Ms. Bellamy heard praise for UNICEF's staff in DPRK and the support they have provided for children since 1996 when UNICEF opened a Country Office here.

“There are enormous challenges here,” Bellamy said. “But we are seeing real results for children and that's what counts. It’s vital that we stay here and expand our work. I'm convinced that by helping children survive and thrive, we're contributing to a stronger, more peaceful Korean peninsula.”

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