Children eat in kindergarten in the North Korean city of Hyangsan
World Food Program via Reuters
Children eat food donated by the World Food Program in a kindergarten in the North Korean city of Hyangsan October 12, 2006 in this photo released by the WFP. The WFP said on Tuesday it would have to halt distribution of rations in North Korea by January unless more funds were received.
updated 10/16/2006 2:30:56 PM ET 2006-10-16T18:30:56

Timo Pakkala, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in North Korea, spoke to by telephone from Pyongyang to explain the humanitarian situation on the ground there.

The U.N. has six different U.N. agencies in North Korea — the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), UNICEF, World Health Organization (WHO), U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP). Pakkala coordinates the U.N.’s activities in North Korea and the 35 international staff members there.

He has worked in North Korea for 15 months after working for many years on development programs in Lesotho, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya.

What are living conditions on the ground in North Korea?
The humanitarian situation in North Korea is quite fragile, especially the food security and the health situation. The country continues to require international assistance if it is to avoid widespread human suffering in the coming months and next year.

Generally, most of the problems that people in North Korea are facing relate to food security and health issues. The country at the moment is facing potentially serious difficulties relating to food availability. The food shipments from China and South Korea have been reduced from last year. The World Food Program has a considerably smaller program than last year.

The country suffered from floods in July and they resulted in crop losses. It is estimated that there are continuous food deficiencies in North Korea which could be as high as 600,000 metric tons for the marketing year that ends this October. Unless this food deficiency is made up through imports, then it may be that next year is extremely difficult for the North Korean people. 

The country is not self-sufficient in food. Every year the country has a food deficiency of something like 900,000 metric tons which it has to make up with imports from neighboring countries like China, South Korea, as well as the U.N. World Food Program. But, the imports from China and South Korea have been considerably reduced and the World Food Programs operations here are much smaller than they used to be, so the country is facing increasing difficulties in terms of making up those annual deficits. 

How bad is the food crisis? Is there a risk of starvation?
I don’t expect people to start starving, but the malnutrition rates are already very high, especially among children and mothers. It is estimated that 37 percent of children under five in North Korea are already malnourished. So the country can really not afford any further food insecurity.

What are the health issues that you see on a regular basis?
The main problem is really malnutrition, which seems to be still quite widespread. 

When combined with the relatively poor health infrastructure, the lack of essential medicines and  the lack of clean water in the rural areas, it really means that the people are in a very difficult situation health-wise.

The nuclear-armed planet

How free are the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in North Korea to actually do their jobs?
Our principle is that we do not provide assistance unless we have access to the beneficiaries. Now in North Korea, it’s not always easy. We do have quite a lot of discussions with the government regarding access. But it is a very important principle for us that we do have to have access the people that we assist.

I think things been relatively good recently. We do have good relations with our counterparts in the government. They do appreciate the assistance that the international community is giving. They try to make our work as easy as possible. Sometimes we do face some restrictions when traveling in certain parts of the country. But, after certain discussions, we usually can resolve these issues.

Are there rising fears that the proposed sanctions for the nuclear tests will adversely affect ordinary North Koreans?
At this point we do not yet know the extent to any sanctions that may be applied to North Korea. But considering the fragile situation that the country is in at the moment, it’s important that whatever sanctions are imposed, that they should be designed and implemented in such a way that we avoid a negative impact on the most vulnerable people, especially children. I think this is very important given the current fragile humanitarian situation of North Korea.

It’s important that in the future the international community continues to support the aid programs of the United Nations agencies and other international organizations in North Korea. Because these programs really target the most needy. They are based on providing assistance in the very important health and other basic social services sectors and they have aimed at increasing food availability.

So I sincerely hope that the sanctions will not intervene with these kinds of programs.

Depending on what comes of the sanctions, are you worried at all about a refugee crisis of people trying to flee North Korea?
No, I don’t expect that.

What is the biggest issue is at the moment there in terms of the needs of people?
The biggest issue is that we do need to continue our programs. I understand the political issues involved between North Korea and the other countries, but I think we should look at the needs of the most vulnerable people and make sure that those needs are met.

It is very important for the future of the country that we do provide basic assistance and basic health care, otherwise the country’s future looks very bleak. I don’t think that it’s in anyone’s interests to make life in North Korea any more difficult than it already is.

My major concern is that we need to be able to continue these programs — whatever the political situation turns out to be.

What do you find to be the biggest challenge working in North Korea?
North Korea is in many ways a unique environment. There is a relatively small international community here. We do have sometimes different views from the government on issues like information sharing and travel around the country. These issues are different in North Korea than in many other countries. But, of course, you have to accept the environment and discuss these things with the government and so far I think we’ve done very well.

In comparison to some of the other countries in Africa where I have worked, North Korea has a good infrastructure, a good health infrastructure, and a well functioning government at various levels, so that is a major advantage for the country. But they lack resources, so they really can’t make full use of the infrastructure that does exist. So the challenge here is really different from places where the infrastructure doesn’t exist at all. Here is does exist, but it has declined since the mid-1990s considerably.

The main concern is that the humanitarian situation is very fragile and that needs to be kept in mind, I don’t think we should make the situation worse for ordinary North Koreans than it already is. So, my appeal really is that we can continue assisting normal North Koreans through the existing programs that the U.N. and other international organizations already have.

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