[VIEWPOINT]Children face peril in the North

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[VIEWPOINT]Children face peril in the North

With the approach of another harsh Korean winter, the lives of thousands of children in the North are once again in grave peril.
The good news is that the situation of children in North Korea has improved since the height of the humanitarian crisis several years ago. Nutrition surveys conducted in 1998 and 2002 show that acute malnutrition ― the immediate measure of the situation of the child ― has been halved. Chronic malnutrition ― the accumulated result of prolonged hardship and undernutrition ― has been reduced by one-third.
These statistics are a testament to the humanitarian assistance provided under the auspices of the United Nations, with a significant contribution from South Korea.
But the threats to the survival and long-term health and development of children in North Korea are still very real. Chronic malnutrition is still high. At 42 percent, it is only three percentage points lower than in Angola, a country that has suffered three decades of civil war and in which one of every four children born does not reach the age of five.
Chronic malnutrition not only stunts the growth of young people; it also retards development of their brains and central nervous system, compromising their ability to develop and to learn. At the same time, the physical environment is becoming increasingly perilous to children. Studies by the United Nations Development Programme Rural have found that rural energy production, long meager, is only a quarter of its 1990 level. This means less power to pump water for irrigation and for drinking and washing.
Moreover, basic infrastructure in North Korea has continued to crumble. Depending on the location, drinking water systems provide only 20 to 50 percent of need.
The implications of all this are ominous. Simply maintaining the gains of the humanitarian assistance program for the North requires that we continue to provide the same essential inputs year after year with no end in sight.
At the same time, international efforts to address the urgent structural causes of the situation of children and other vulnerable members of the population are being slowed under pressure from governments that argue that to do so would bolster a regime that violates human rights and produces and exports weapons of mass destruction.
I would argue that many aspects of humanitarian assistance are not linked to the continuity of a regime but are certainly essential to the survival, protection and development of children. Providing drinking water or repairing basic health and education infrastructure can surely fall into this category, along with reducing chronic malnutrition and assuring that the youngest children get a healthy start in life.
Moreover, North Korea is the only humanitarian situation in the world today where we are not following up emergency appeals with programs for reconstruction and development.
It is appropriate that this debate should begin in Korea itself. As Koreans, or people living and working in Korea, you understand better than others the imperative of moving the situation in the North beyond mere survival. And as Koreans, you may well have to bear the brunt of any consequences of underinvestment in human potential now, once the two halves of the country eventually reunify. It is vital that you develop this wisdom here and then educate others in the international community, which has a solemn obligation to promote and protect the rights of all Korean children.
In strategic partnership with Unicef and other members of the humanitarian community in the North, we can together devise more sustainable approaches to improve the situation of children there ― an undertaking that we sincerely hope will be the work of Koreans themselves.

* The writer is executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).

by Carol Bellamy
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