About a fifth of all North Korean children are affected by malnutrition, the most senior United Nations humanitarian aid official has said during a tour of the country, the first such visit since 2011.
Mark Lowcock, the under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, made the comments at the end of the first day of his tour of North Korea, which he has said is aimed at raising awareness of the dire conditions faced by ordinary people.
“One of the things we’ve seen is very clear evidence of humanitarian need here,” he said in a video posted to the UN website and his official Twitter account. “More than half the children in rural areas, including the places we’ve been, have no clean water, contaminated water sources.”
Lowcock met with Kim Yong-chol, North Korea’s official head of state, and health minister Jang Jun-sang, according the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
Humanitarian aid is exempt from UN sanctions placed on North Korea as punishment for developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, but officials have warned aid shipments are still delayed due to the trade restrictions.
Lowcock also visited a hospital which does not receive support from the UN where there were 140 patients afflicted with tuberculosis but only enough medicine for 40 people. Hospitals across the country lack medical supplies and equipment, meaning most cannot provide care “in a way that would pass basic humanitarian thresholds”.
He said access for aid workers in the country was improving, but did not provide specifics. His trip is partially focused on spurring donations, with the UN saying it needs to raise $111m (£84m) to provide aid for six million people in the areas of health, water, sanitation and food security. The UN has had to suspend some programs, such as nutrition support for kindergartens, because of a lack of funds.
Despite North Korea’s inability to provide basic necessities for its people, the government has rebuffed offers to relinquish its nuclear weapons program for aid and investment aimed at sparking economic growth. North Korean officials have been far more focused on security guarantees.
While US and South Korean officials have made some concessions, like suspending military exercises, and are reportedly exploring investment projects in the event of sanctions relief, permanent military reductions have so far been refused.
South Korean president Moon Jae-in reiterated in an interview with Singapore’s Straits Times that US troops would remain in the country despite a deal with the North.
“South Korea and the US maintain a firm stance about the role and importance of US Forces Korea for peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia,” Moon said. “It is a matter of the South Korea-US alliance, not something that can be discussed in denuclearisation talks between North Korea and the US.”