A healthier future for families in Jongju City, DPR Korea

Delivering for children in hospitals, schools and homes

Simon Nazer
Mother and son in Jongju City, DPR Korea
17 July 2019

Clean water, medical equipment and supplies for mother and baby, and even innovative ways to increase crop production with composting, are just some of the ways UNICEF is helping families survive and thrive in Jongju, DPR Korea.

33-year-old Ri Hyo Sim, a new mother of a 3-day old baby girl, is confident that she will now be able to give her child the best possible start in life.

33-year-old Ri Hyo Sim with her 3-day-old baby in Jongju City Hospital
33-year-old Ri Hyo Sim with her 3-day-old baby in Jongju City Hospital

“She’s my first baby, and is doing really well,” she says while breastfeeding in the maternity ward of Jongju City Hospital. “The hospital gave me a lot of information about how to keep the baby healthy before I gave birth, and since she was born we are being looked after very well. She’s feeding without any problems and is happy.”

"We’re going to do everything we can to make sure my baby is healthy and grows up to be a good person"

Ri Hyo Sim, mother

Watching over mother and baby in the maternity ward is Head Obstetrician Dr. Kim Hye Yong, who specialises in pregnancy, childbirth and women’s reproductive health. She is delighted with the support her hospital has received from UNICEF.

“Aside from the important medical supplies we receive each year, we’ve also received emergency obstetric and neonatal care equipment this year,” says Dr. Kim Hye Yong.

Dr. Kim Hye Yong in the background watches over a pregnant woman being scanned

In rural areas across DPRK still almost one in eight deliveries takes place in the home and better equipment and counselling services can help change that.

 “This equipment helps us do a lot more to protect mothers and babies in a safe way, and quickly,” she says while watching over Ri Hyo Sim’s baby. “For example, the equipment allows us to identify anomalies or jaundice in babies and allows us to deliver faster treatment. This will save lives.”

Hospital staff are already seeing the positive impacts of the equipment, coupled with the provision of safe tapped water, medicines and nutrition-related training.

A woman in labour is being monitored by doctors

“Now we have nothing to envy of any other hospital,” says Dr. Kim Hye Yong proudly. “We have everything we need here to care for mothers and babies and keep them healthy and safe.”

UNICEF is prioritising support for families and children most in need across the country. A recent national survey supported by UNICEF revealed some key threats to the well-being of children, including stunting, malnutrition, contaminated drinking water and a lack of access to basic sanitation services.

UNICEF is working with the Government in some of the worst affected parts of the country to tackle these issues and improve the health of children.


Bringing water into homes, hospitals and schools

Yun Rye Yong, 10, drinks tapped water in her home

Sitting with her two grandchildren at home in Jongju City, Kim Ji Sun, recalls a time when simply accessing water was a daily struggle. “Before, we could only access water once or twice a day. I remember we had to limit how much we’d use – you really had to think about making sure you had enough water for drinking, cooking, washing… It was a daily worry.”

Things are very different today however.

UNICEF supported the Government by installing a new piped water system. This system uses gravity rather than electricity to ensure a regular non-stop flow of safe water into around 8,000 homes.

“Now we never have to worry about using the water,” says Yun Rye Yong's grandmother. “We have a big family and need a lot of water. It was a pressure, but that pressure has been lifted off our shoulders.”

Yun Rye Yong, 10, smiling in her living room
Yun Rye Yong, 10

Across the town in Jongju Primary School, children have also learned about the important benefits of accessing clean water and safe sanitation facilities.

12-year-old Jon Wui Gwang and Son U Bok sit in class talking about their hopes for the future – she wants to be a scientist and he a famous volleyball player – as well as what safe water and latrines brings to children like them.

Jon Wui Gwang is asked to sketch out what he’s learned about the importance of clean water and safe latrines. He begins by drawing separate cubicles: “Boys and girls should have separate, private spaces,” he says.

Jon Wui Gwang and Son U Bok sit in class drawing latrines

He then draws a tap: “This is for handwashing, you should use this after going to the toilet or playing outside.”

UNICEF have supported 58 schools like this one in 2018 throughout DPRK with handwashing stations and soap and hygiene training for teachers who then conduct regular supervised handwashing sessions with students to form the healthy habit for life.

The head of the school of some 1,450 students welcomes the support: “Children can be very vulnerable to health problems and handwashing with soap and clean water is an easy and important way to protect them.”

UNICEF plans to continue this support to around 30 other schools throughout DPRK this year.

Son U Bok, second left, washes her hands in a group handwashing station at school
Son U Bok, second left, washes her hands in a group handwashing station at school


An innovative composting system: healthy families, safer water

A few kilometres outside of Jongju City is a farm cooperative of 150 households taking part in trialling an innovative new scheme. The scheme aims to improve health, deal with human waste safely and help these small, vulnerable communities grow more food for their families.

Although 82 per cent of children and their families across DPR Korea have access to at least basic sanitation services, waste treatment remains an issue. Unless excreta are safely managed and disposed of, the risk of contamination, worm infestation, diarrhoea and malnutrition remains high.

“Before, human waste used to be mixed and used as compost,” explains Ri In Ho, head of the Ryong Po Dong farm cooperative. “But this poisoned the water system and we learned that this makes people sick. This new system separates the dangerous human waste.”

Ri In Ho explains how the new latrine and composting system works
Ri In Ho explains how the new latrine and composting system works

New latrines have been installed which can instantly separate faeces from urine. While the faeces is disposed of safely, urine can be added to the compost. This compost area is specially designed to separate it from the rest of the farm to allow it to decay faster and be used for farming. 

“It used to take 3 months to get compost ready,” explains Ri In Ho enthusiastically. “We’d just lay it all out on the ground and cover it. Now with this new system, it only takes 20 days, which makes a big difference.”

“This new system protects the water and helps us grow food,” continues Ri In Ho. “We grow two or three times more food this way. This is very good for agriculture and keeping people healthy.”

Another 250 households intend to join the pilot scheme in efforts to reduce the risk of contamination and childhood illness. 


Bringing health care to homes

Dr Ju Song Hui, a household doctor in Jongju City, DPR Korea, checks on the health of two year old Jang

“I cover around 130 households, that’s around 510 people,” she says in the home of Pae Hye Sim, mother of 2-year-old Jang Hun.

“There are some common complaints from children such as common colds, respiratory problems and diarrhoea,” says the Doctor as she prepares her equipment. “Since tapped water was introduced into homes the rates of diarrhoea have dropped.”

Another area of UNICEF support for doctors like Dr Su Song Hui is the introduction of the Household Doctors’ Bag. Full of all the essentials medicines and equipment, it helps doctors quickly diagnose and treat patients on the spot.

“The Household Doctors’ Bag is very useful,” says Dr Ju Song Hui while she sits with Jang Hun, checking his breathing and other vital signs. “It’s very portable and not heavy, which is important as I cover around 30 homes each day so it’s a lot of walking.”

She smiles and confirms to the mother that Jang Hun is healthy and has no health concerns.

“Secondly, it contains all the important medicines and equipment I need to do my job and treat common illnesses on the spot. Before this wasn’t really possible and it’s a great help to me and to families.”

The doctor checks Jang for any nutritional issues using a MUAC tape

Support like this is valuable for parents like Pae Hye Sim. “When he’s sick I just call and the doctor comes quickly to treat him, it’s very good,” she says with a smile, patting her son on the head.

While young Jang Hun is guided by his mother to wash his hands, Dr Ju Song Hui packs her bag and gets ready to move on to her next visit.

“I’m very proud of the job - I really enjoy it and I really like to take care of people,” says the doctor. “This is what I studied and worked hard for. I’m happy to see the smiles after I help people.”

UNICEF continues to work throughout DPR Korea to help families, schools and hospitals like these in Jongju City to give children the opportunity for the best start in life. Yearly, around five million people in prioritized counties have access to essential medicines from the assorted medical kits and household doctor’s bags distributed by UNICEF.