Interview with UNICEF DPRK Representative
UNICEF Representative in DPR Korea Gopalan Balagopal answers questions on how UNICEF is working to benefit the lives of women and children.
1) How many children are there in the DPRK and what percentage of the population do they make up?
It is estimated that out of a population of 23.5 million, there are about 6.8 million children under the age of 18, of which 30 per cent or approximately 2.1 million are under the age of five. A majority of the population (61 per cent) lives in urban areas, reflecting the traditional industrial base of the country.
2) Where are the most vulnerable children located?
The 2004 National Nutritional Assessment showed significant variations of the nutritional status of children between provinces, with the best situation prevailing around the capital city of Pyongyang and the most difficult ones in the more remote north eastern provinces of South Hamgyong, North Hamgyong and Ryanggang.
Since the beginning of the 1990s, the economic crisis has greatly affected the activity of the industrial sector, and it is often acknowledged, that the urban population outside the capital city Pyongyang is the most vulnerable population in the country. Apart from Pyongyang, the big industrial cities (Chongjin, Hamhung, Kimchaek and Wonsan) are mostly located on the eastern coast of the DPRK.
3) What programmes and projects for children does UNICEF operate in DPRK?
UNICEF is mainly engaged in essential life saving or growth enhancing activities for the youngest children in the country. UNICEF continues to support country wide immunization of children, treatment of severely malnourished children, provision of essential drugs to treat the most common childhood diseases, prevention of micronutrient deficiencies in pregnant women, support to safe water and sanitation, and supply of school materials. UNICEF’s current country programme (2004-2006), which has a humanitarian focus, also aims to develop the capacity of government institutions to provide quality basic social services.
4) Does UNICEF have programmes throughout the country?
While some components of UNICEF programming, like immunization and provision of vitamin A, cover the entire country, we also have integrated programming in 10 selected counties. There, we concentrate our activities on early childhood care and development, water supply and sanitation, and improvement of the school environment.
5) What partners does UNICEF work with in the country?
The main partners for UNICEF, apart from the government agencies, are the UN Country team consisting of UNDP, WFP, UNFPA, WHO and FAO. A Strategic Framework for Collaboration between the UN agencies and the Government has been agreed to and is expected to be signed shortly. Though the presence of NGOs in DPRK is limited, UNICEF seeks to collaborate and involve NGOs in consultations.
UNICEF has 10 international professional posts in its office in Pyongyang. In addition there are 21 Korean staff seconded from the government, six working in professional positions and 15 in support roles.
7) How long has UNICEF operated in DPRK and what has the agency achieved for children to date?
UNICEF has worked in the DPRK since 1985. It began its operations from Bangkok with an arrangement for local services through the UNDP office in Pyongyang, and then established a physical presence in 1997. The first in-country UNICEF Representative was appointed in 1998. From the time of the establishment of the Pyongyang office, the efforts of UNICEF and other international agencies were focused on the humanitarian crisis. The combination of economic crisis and natural disasters resulted in the halving of the per capita income between 1993 and 1998 and an increase in infant mortality from 14 to 23 and under-five mortality from 27 to 55 per 1000 live births. Acute food shortages, heightened morbidity and the reduced capacity of the health system due to shortages of essential drugs, and degraded quality of water and sanitation systems, all contributed to the increase in infant and child mortality.
Following concentrated efforts by UNICEF and other agencies, there has been considerable progress in reversing these trends. According to a 2004 nutrition assessment, between 1998 and 2004 acute malnutrition fell from 16 to seven per cent and chronic malnutrition from 62 to 37 per cent. Despite this improvement, the current levels of malnutrition are still high by the World Health Organization standards. Moreover, the survey found that approximately one third of expectant mothers were malnourished and anaemic, the same levels noted in 2002.
With UNICEF support, immunization coverage of children under one, which had dropped from almost 100 per cent in the early 1990s to 37 per cent in 1998, increased to over 80 per cent in 2005.
8) What is UNICEF's position on sanctions against DPRK and how will they impact children?
The floods that took place in the summer of 2006 are expected to result in a significant shortfall in food-grain availability. At the end of 2005, DPRK decided not to accept any humanitarian assistance and the World Food Programme, which had extensive operations in the country, has scaled down drastically. Now, following the missile test and most recent political developments, with the freeze on food grain transfers from Republic of Korea and the imposition of sanctions, the situation regarding food availability is even more worrying.
As a member of the United Nations family, UNICEF understands that sanctions are intended to protect international peace and stability. We are, however, concerned about the impact of the sanctions on the lives of vulnerable children. If the sanctions result in scaling down of the support that we anticipate for the new country programme that starts in 2007, it could critically handicap our efforts to support women and children in this country.
9) Does UNICEF have the financial resources to carry out its programme in DPRK?
Following the DPRK's government decision to refuse humanitarian and emergency aid in 2005, and the international community's reluctance to provide any development aid without progress on political issues, such the nuclear test, UNICEF is facing more and more difficulties to mobilize financial resources to support basic social services for North Korean children. In 2006, UNICEF managed with great effort to mobilize 70 per cent of the funding required for its operation but at the moment the prospects for 2007 are bleak.