UN Efforts Are Working, She Says, But Major Challenges RemainSEOUL, 17 March 2004 – Despite international isolation and a political impasse with the West, efforts to save and improve the lives of North Korean children are working, the head of UNICEF said today, citing vastly improved immunization rates and better systems for finding and treating cases of severe malnutrition.
But despite the positive results, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said social service infrastructure in the country is in a severe state of decline and poses serious challenges to the future of Korean children.
Speaking here following a three-day visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Bellamy said she saw marked improvement in the situation of children since her last visit to North Korea in 1997.
“With the cooperation of the government of DPRK, our efforts for children are working,” Bellamy said. “Close to 80 per cent of children are being vaccinated, up from 35 per cent. Some 60,000 malnourished children are receiving therapeutic feeding, and we’re working to ensure more communities get clean water. All these efforts are the result of a growing partnership between the government and aid agencies – the kind of partnership many thought could not work here.”
But Bellamy warned that despite the successes major difficulties remain. “We have seen improvement, and that’s encouraging. But this nation faces enormous challenges, and children remain extremely vulnerable to malnutrition, illness, and deaths that are entirely preventable.”
She said intractable problems with electrical power generation are hurting water service, hospital care, and industrial output – in turn affecting individual health and family purchasing power. “What we’ve learned over the past eight years is that this government is open to outside help, works hard to bring about positive change, and cares about its children,” Bellamy said. “But we’ve also learned that the problems to be confronted are growing, not diminishing.”
“The humanitarian crisis in the North may have been triggered by natural disasters in the mid-90s,” Bellamy added, “but it is now sustained by structural issues. Global economic change, outdated infrastructure, and inadequate government revenue are factors in a different kind of crisis that cannot be solved through emergency relief alone.”
Over three days, Bellamy visited a WFP and UNICEF-supported factory that produces therapeutic food for malnourished children; a hospital where essential drugs provided by UNICEF are treating respiratory illness in children; a UNICEF-designed water project in a remote town that is supplying clean water without the need for treatment or pumping stations; and a school that – like thousands across the country – received learning supplies from UNICEF at the height of DPRK’s crisis.
Bellamy, who met with the President of the People’s Assembly, Mr. Kim Yong Nam, and with several government ministers, said she was impressed by the level of trust DPRK officials have developed with the aid community. She said government ministries have proved to be open to cooperation and that, once reached, agreements have been implemented in full. But she noted that lack of access to some parts of the country is an unresolved issue, and she pressed for more openness.
UNICEF recently embarked on a new three-year program with the government, emphasizing nutrition for children, basic health care, improvements in the supply of water, and education.
Bellamy said universal salt iodization is one of the next milestones for DPRK, greatly improving mental development in children. She added that the government had agreed not simply to accept learning supplies from UNICEF but to look at the quality of education, as well.
“While there are complex challenges in this country, we’re focusing on getting basic results for children,” she said. “We’ve already demonstrated that it is possible and, quite honestly, we believe that progress for children is essential to a stronger, more stable Korean peninsula down the road. Everyone can agree on that.”
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Video of Ms. Bellamy’s trip to DPRK is available on Reuters and APTN feeds.
Photos, background, and more information at www.unicef.org
Listen to an interview with UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy about her visit to DPRK
Audio clip [mp3]