SEOUL—Infant mortality in North Korea has doubled over the last decade, prompting South Korea to pledge a total of U.S. $3.4 million in funding for a special aid agency to tackle child malnutrition in the isolated Stalinist state.
Chronic food shortages over the Last decade have taken their toll on children in North Korea, with 42 North Korean infant deaths per 1,000 live births before the age of one, the UNFPA said.
“I have been in the South for a few years already, but I cannot yet find peace,” a defector identified only by her surname, Kim, told RFA’s Korean service.
“A cold shiver often crawls up my spine, when I remember those little dying eyes pleading and imploring for help, as if they were saying: ‘You’re the one who’s a doctor, weren’t you supposed to save me?’” said the woman, who worked for many years in the pediatric department of a North Korean hospital.
In contrast, the under-one infant mortality rate in South Korea—separated from North Korea at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War—has decreased over the past decade, from 9 per 1,000 live births 10 years ago to 3 per 1,000 live births currently.
Beginning from the time the fetus is in the mother’s womb, for a period of about 36 months, it is crucial to provide the appropriate nutrients to the fetus and infant, to boost immunity to various infectious diseases and ensure that the child’s physical and mental development is within normal parameters.
“If I had been an internist, I might not even have left North Korea. One might get used to seeing adults die from ailments, but watching children die from malnutrition was too much to bear, and that is precisely why I decided to defect,” said Kim, a traditional herbal medicine doctor.
In 2004, UNICEF conducted a household survey of 4,800 North Korean families, from Pyongyang to Yangang province, to determine the nutritional status of children under age seven.
They found that 40 percent of the children surveyed suffered from chronic malnutrition and were under height for their age.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry announced July 27 it would earmark money from the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Funds to finance a private relief agency based in South Korea, targeting child nutrition in North Korea’s Hweryong province.
The decision suggests some willingness on Pyongyang’s part to cooperate with a South Korean aid group.
“Improving the nutritional status of children under five in Hweryong province is a most pressing issue,” social and cultural exchanges official Han Jae-Hyun told RFA.
“With that in mind, we began work in 2006, and have since conducted discussions and reached agreement with our North Korean counterparts regarding the operational and administrative issues pertaining to the provision of aid to the children of Hweryong, and this time we have decided to disburse the funds necessary for this endeavor,” he said.
South Korea plans to donate U.S. $1.85 million over the course of a year from Aug. 1, to help improve the nutritional and health status of children in Hweryong province.
A futher U.S. $653,000 will fund construction of a maternal and child health center, U.S. $816,000 will be spent on improving child nutrition, while U.S. $54,000 will be used for disease prevention work.
“Beginning from the time the fetus is in the mother’s womb, for a period of about 36 months, it is crucial to provide the appropriate nutrients to the fetus and infant, in order to boost immunity to various infectious diseases and ensure that the child’s physical and mental development is within normal parameters,” Kim Kyung Hee, chief executive of the Join Together Society, said.
“With that in mind, we thought that one way to maximize the results of our work in North Korea would be to focus on improving the nutritional and health status of infants between zero and 36 months of age.”
She said the agency’s work in Hweryong province would serve as a pilot for future projects.
“We intend to build on our activities to improve maternal and child nutrition and health to expand to North Hamgyong province, currently experiencing the most hardship. Ultimately, we intend to implement a more methodical and better organized maternal and child nutrition and health system to cover the whole of North Korea,” she said.
Original reporting in Korean by Yoon-young Choi. RFA Korean service director: Jaehoon Ahn. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.