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At a glance: Korea, Democratic People's Republic of

Real lives

UNICEF makes a difference in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)

© UNICEF/HQ98-0015/Haskell
A girl in her classroom at a UNICEF-assisted boarding school.

UNICEF began working in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1985 and opened a Country Office there in 1996. The organization’s focus is on improving the capacity of the DPRK to provide its people, especially children and women, with adequate health services, water and sanitation, and primary and early childhood education.

From 1960 to 1980, the DPRK was progressive in the social sector, providing good quality health services, and free and universal education. But during the 1990’s this changed due to the combination of the break up of the Soviet Bloc and a series of natural disasters that resulted in a period of famine.

Since 1998, however, there have been improvements on the national status of children as food availability, resumption of immunization and the provision of vital medicines.

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

Despite notable improvements in child nutrition since the height of the famine crisis in 1997, malnutrition levels remain high: 42 per cent of all children fewer than seven years of age are stunted and 70,000 acutely malnourished children are at risk of dying.

© UNICEF/HQ97-0202/Prout
Using an upper arm measuring tape to assess malnutrition levels, a malnourished girl toddler is examined.

Life improving in the DPRK

Of the country’s approximately 23 million people; 2 million are children under the age of five years. And last year, UNICEF’s efforts aimed at these children recorded significant successes, with child national health days reaching nearly all 2 million children in all villages and cities across the country. Children were given Vitamin A tablets, a de-worming treatment and over 80 per cent of infants (350,000) and pregnant women (300,000) were fully immunized.

Executive Director Carol Bellamy has taken two trips to DPRK; the first was in 1997, a year after the Country Office was opened. Her second trip, taken in March 2004 was a three-day visit accompanied by members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as UNICEF staff who live and work in North Korea full time.

As with her previous trip in 1997, Ms. Bellamy visited schools and hospitals.

“It's much better than when I was here back in 1997,” said Ms. Bellamy. “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.”

Photo essay

View a photo-essay of UNICEF’s work in DPRK (popup)

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