Situation of Children and Women
A mother and child participate in the Nutrition
Assessment, October 2002.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has a population of approximately 23 million, of which 2 million are children under five years. A majority (61 per cent) live in urban areas, reflecting the traditional industrial base of the economy. The DPRK became a State Party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1990 and to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2001. It has an impressive body of laws committing the state to the realization of children’s and women’s rights.
The economy of the DPRK suffered significantly from the dissolution of the socialist bloc that provided a market for its industrial goods and was a source of cheap and subsidized raw materials including fuel. Combined with widespread natural disasters in the mid-1990s and limited interaction with the world economy, this led to a sharp economic downturn seriously constraining the government’s ability to feed and care for its people. Following an appeal to the international community in 1995, the DPRK has benefited from much-needed large-scale humanitarian relief.According to government figures, from 1993 to 1998, per capita income declined from US$ 991 to US$ 457; the infant mortality rate increased from 14 to 24 per thousand live births and the under-five mortality rate from 27 to 50. This increase in child mortality resulted from acute food shortages combined with heightened morbidity and reduced capacity of the health system to manage childhood illness, caused by a severe shortage of essential drugs and general degradation of health infrastructure and water and sanitation systems. The main causes of child deaths are diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections, with malnutrition presumed to underlie around half of these deaths.
According to a 1998 survey, the prevalence of acute malnutrition (wasting) among children aged under seven years was 16 per cent; the prevalence of chronic malnutrition (stunting) was 62 per cent. The 2002 nutrition assessment shows an improvement in adjusted prevalence for the same indicators to 9 per cent and 42 per cent, respectively. This improvement may be attributed in part to the substantial humanitarian assistance provided by the international community, as well as to the increase in food production due to more favourable climatic conditions and international assistance in agriculture. Child malnutrition is worse in the northeastern provinces than in the rest of the country, as is true of most indicators of child development.
Immunization rates have increased sharply since 1998 providing better protection for children from disease. A 1998 survey found coverage for DPT3 at 37 per cent and for measles at 34 per cent. Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) figures in 2002 show coverage of 67 per cent and 86 per cent, respectively, for the same vaccines. Polio eradication activities have been very successful with around 95 per cent of children under five receiving two doses of oral polio vaccine each year over the past six years. Over the past five years, a similar percentage of children aged 6 months to 5 years have received twice yearly vitamin A supplementation.
Women form almost half of the total labour force so practically all children are enrolled in state nurseries from the age of three months to four years and go on to kindergartens during their fifth and sixth years. The level of care provided to young children has deteriorated, due to shortages of food, fuel for heating and other supplies. There is limited interaction between these institutions and children’s home environments.Primary and secondary schooling in the DPRK is free and compulsory, and all children up to the age of 17 are enrolled. Much effort and dedication, particularly on the part of teaching staff, have gone into maintaining the standard of education. However, economic difficulties have resulted in shortages of textbooks, school materials and fuel for heating during the long sub-zero winters. In some instances, attendance has thus become intermittent. Learning methods have also not evolved in step with international developments. HIV/AIDS has not yet impacted the DPRK; officially there are no cases, and vigilance is quite high. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the epidemic sweeping Asia will pass any country by, and preventive measures, especially adequate information to young people and others, will be urgently needed. Child labour and other forms of exploitation are illegal, and there are no recorded instances in the country. Similarly, however, vigilance is needed to ensure that child exploitation issues do not arise.
Women have equal status with men in law but they also shoulder a double burden of holding down full-time employment and carrying all household responsibilities. The 2002 nutrition assessment found that 32 per cent of the mothers examined were malnourished, an important factor contributing to the continuing very high level of stunting in children. The maternal mortality ratio was estimated to be 105 per 100,000 live births in 1998 despite low fertility (2) and high average age of women at marriage (24-26 years).
For the DPRK to exit from its humanitarian emergency, extensive development cooperation is needed alongside the humanitarian assistance that is vital to assure the survival, growth and development of children. Without reducing that humanitarian assistance, more needs to be done to build the capacity for development – which will also increase effectiveness of humanitarian aid. Such cooperation, however, is constrained by political factors limiting the involvement of most donors to the humanitarian sphere.