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Hunger threatens 800,000 children in North Korea

Friday, 8 August 1997: An estimated 800,000 infants and young children in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) are now at risk, many needing special feeding and medicines to halt their downward spiral of sickness and malnutrition, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said today following her return from an official visit to that drought-ravaged country. 

"The safety net for children is breaking down," Ms. Bellamy said after viewing the situation with UNICEF emergency-relief teams based in the DPRK. "The pantries are bare, hospital medicine cabinets are empty -- and the results could be catastrophic if these shortages are not eased by winter." 

Meeting today with correspondents at United Nations Headquarters in New York, she said that since April, UNICEF has flown in two planeloads of high-energy milk, medicines for treatment of hunger-related diseases, and 350 medical kits for county hospitals to Pyongyang. Another three planeloads -- 105 metric tonnes of milk and medicines -- are expected by mid-August. To date, UNICEF has, with contributions from the European Community, delivered 70 metric tonnes of milk, medicines, and feeding equipment for use in 92 hospitals, orphanages and nurseries for treatment of severely malnourished children. 

Ms. Bellamy said that the number of children suffering from the effects of food shortages has risen dramatically in recent months, with some 80,000 children severely malnourished and in imminent peril of succumbing to starvation or disease. UNICEF and other UN agencies estimate that about 38 per cent or 800,000 children under five are suffering from malnutrition to a serious, but lesser degree. The worst suffering is among children who have lost or have been separated from their parents. Up to half the children in some orphanages are severely malnourished. 

The failure of much of the corn and rice harvest, Ms. Bellamy said, will increase the danger for these children even more with the onset of winter. 

"We are already seeing children up to the age of 15 who are severely malnourished and in danger of dying," she said. "Starvation hits babies first; older children have more resistance. These children have been chronically short of food all year. Now, for many parts of the population, getting enough food for the winter will be an enormous challenge." 

UN agency experts pointed out that the DPRK is producing only half the food that it needs for subsistence. While much of the corn crop has failed because of drought, they believe the rice crop, too, will suffer severe losses if adequate rain doesn't fall within the next 8-12 days. They said it has already been damaged by a combination of extremely high temperatures and little water for irrigation. 

Ms. Bellamy said that UNICEF has tripled its international appeals for aid to $14.3 million, but so far has received only $3.5 million. 

In addition to providing food, medicine and equipment, UNICEF has trained a core of 150 doctors and 200 other health workers in the emergency feeding of malnourished children, which eventually will be carried out in 150 hospitals. The agency is also providing seeds and plastic greenhouses to help kindergartens and nurseries create their own vegetable gardens. 

"If the North Korean people -- and particularly the children -- are to get through the difficult weeks and months ahead," Ms. Bellamy said, "it is critical that they are given the tools to help themselves survive -- and thrive." 

Please email media@unicef.org with comments or requests for more information, quoting CF/DOC/PR/1997/33.
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