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North Korea Grants UNICEF Access to  Isolated Provinces

For the first time in two years, UN humanitarian agencies have been granted access to two isolated provinces in North Korea. A mission, led by the UN Children's Fund, is leaving the North Korean capital Pyongyang Saturday for the North Eastern provinces of North Hamgyong and Ryanggang. It will assess the critical food and health needs of the people. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

These areas have been off-limits to international aid agencies since the end of 2006. The UN Children's Fund had been active in the region since 1999, providing critical support and supplies for basic health, nutrition and water supply services.

UNICEF spokeswoman, Veronique Taveau, tells VOA the agency's country team has been negotiating with the government to reassume humanitarian access to these two remote provinces since early 2007.

"We know that the situation in those two provinces for children is quite bad, so that is why it is very important for us to go there to be able to reach the most vulnerable children and to assess the situation," she said.

During the next 11 days, Taveau says the 10-member team will visit hospitals, health facilities and institutions for children in county towns and villages. She says the experts will finalize arrangements to train doctors and caregivers in the treatment of malnutrition and monitor the use of supplies.

The World Food Program has just completed an assessment on food security, which shows there are a large number of malnourished children in the two remote North Eastern provinces, both badly affected by last year's floods.

Taveau says surveys conducted a few years ago indicate high levels of malnutrition among children.

"What we know is that 37 percent of children below the age of five are already malnourished and that is a very, very high number," she added. "What we also know is that mortality rates for children, for babies in North Korea is 55 for 1,000 births. So, it is really a very high rate. So, that is why we are very worried and concerned about the situation."

UNICEF says it is urgent to reach vulnerable children quickly with food, basic health and nutrition services and to ensure that severely malnourished children get the treatment needed to save their lives.

On Friday, UNICEF trucks loaded with nutritional supplies and medicines left Pyongyang for the North Eastern Provinces. The arduous journey over mountainous roads is expected to take four days.

The relief supplies include therapeutic milk and food for severely malnourished children as well as enough essential medicines to treat nearly 400,000 people over the next three months.