North Korea continues to suffer severe economic and social problems. But the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reports it is having some success in helping to ease the plight of the country's 23 million people.
UNICEF'S Representative for Pyongyang, Richard Bridle, said the international humanitarian program in North Korea is working. He recalled that back in 1998, North Korea suffered from the worst malnutrition in the world. Now, he said, acute malnutrition among children has been cut in half from 16 percent to eight percent, and chronic malnutrition from 62 percent to 42 percent.
Mr. Bridle described these reductions as dramatic, and said they show that the humanitarian program operated by the United Nations, the Red Cross, and non-governmental agencies really is effective.
"I would also say that those dramatic improvements basically give the lie to people around the world who have said that this aid is being systematically and largely diverted," added Mr. Bridle. "If all of the food of the World Food Program were actually going to the army, why would there be such a dramatic effect on the situation of children? We have here indirect evidence that certainly, by and large, the vast majority of that assistance, if not all of it, is going to its intended beneficiaries."
Mr. Bridle also pointed to an improvement in relations with the North Korean authorities. "When we started this humanitarian program, we were under great suspicion on the part of the North Koreans," he said. "It was a question of, you know, 'just give us the goods, let us get on with things, our system is the best, we know what we are doing.'
"We do not get that message from them any more," he continued. "What we do hear from them now, certainly in the social sector, is, 'we want your advice on policy. We would like to move towards international standards.' OK. Now we are not talking nuclear programs or rocket science here. But they have adopted the international immunization schedule. They have adopted international recommendations on breast feeding, [which are] extremely important for the very youngest children."
Nonetheless, Mr. Bridle said North Korean children are still at great risk of dying, and he warned that there is no end in sight to the humanitarian crisis.
Mr. Bridle said an end to the crisis would involve the building of internal capacity to enable the North Koreans to feed their own population, to provide their own medicines, repair their water sanitation systems, and to provide children with educational materials.
However, UNICEF'S efforts to help North Korea achieve these goals are threatened by a serious lack of funding. Just over one quarter of its current appeal for $12 million has been met. UNICEF says this situation puts children at greater risk of death and malnutrition.