Children Born to Unmarried Mothers in North Korea Excluded From UN-Sponsored Immunization Initiatives

nk-immunization.jpg In this file photo from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency, distributed by Korea News Service, two to five-year-old infants receive polio vaccinations.

North Korea excludes children of single mothers from vaccination and nutritional programs sponsored by the United Nations because local law forbids registering out-of-wedlock births, RFA has learned from sources inside the reclusive country.

North Korea depends on aid programs from UNICEF and other U.N. agencies to maintain the health and nutrition of children. In a country with a crumbling medical infrastructure that started a precipitous decline after the collapse of the Soviet Union almost three decades ago, the vaccinations and food supplements for children are highly prized by parents.

“Every year, infants and children who have been vaccinated with the help of the United Nations are made safe from polio and other diseases. So when the vaccination project, which people call ‘UN shots,’ is announced, people scramble to go to  the hospital,” a resident of South Pyongan province, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA’s Korean Service Tuesday.

“Last week, local hospitals in our province provided nutritional supplements to infants younger than one-year-old and toddlers five and younger. They also gave shots to prevent polio and tuberculosis,” the source said.

But not all children are eligible for this type of immunization, because there is no mechanism to legally register the births of children born out of wedlock, leaving them without legal protections.

“Babies born out of wedlock were not included on vaccination lists after last year because their births have not been registered,” the source said.  “Only children whose birth certificates are confirmed by the health authorities are included on the vaccination list.”

Another source, a resident of North Pyongan province who requested anonymity to ensure security, told RFA that the problem is becoming more common along with changing attitudes on premarital sex.

“These days, young people in urban areas are more sexually open, so more and more unmarried women are giving birth to children,” the second source said.

“Newborn babies that have parents who did not register their marriage are not legally allowed to register their births because their biological parents are not identified,” said the second source.

North Korea does not release statistics on unwed mothers and single-parent families. Although single mothers may be more common these days, the stigma against them remains strong in a traditionally conservative society cut off from most outside culture and media for decades, with even the primary youth organization fueling discriminatory perceptions of them.

“The Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League label single mothers as ideologically corrupt women,” the second source said.

“Parents of young single mothers often secretly raise their [grandchildren], but when the story gets out in the neighborhood, they are accused of [enabling] morally corrupt [behavior],” the source added.

“Because of this, single mothers can’t even vaccinate their babies.”

“The authorities should not only advertise that they value human life, but also establish a legal protection system for children born by single mothers, as they are [people too],” the North Pyongan province resident added.

The first source, from South Pyongan province, said parents have turned up at hospitals begging to at least be given nutritional supplements for their children.

“Unmarried mothers pleaded with a local hospital doctors to provide the nutritional supplements for their babies, as they are famous for their healthful effects, but they were rejected,” said the source.

“Doctors said they were not allowed to give them anything because they were only provided enough supplements and vaccines for the number of registered children. They told [the mothers] to appeal to upper leadership to get it,” the source added.

UNICEF, along with the World Vaccine Immunization Alliance (GAVI), provides major immunizations for diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, and hepatitis B for infants and toddlers under 6 years old in North Korea.

RFA requests for comment from UNICEF on medical assistance they provide for single mothers and their children in North Korea received no reply.

Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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