Editor’s Note: Mark Lowcock is the United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator. He is on mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – the official name of North Korea – July 9-12. The views expressed here are solely his.
The world’s attention has focused on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea over recent months, hitting a crescendo with the historic meeting of Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, the leaders of the DPRK and the United States, in Singapore on June 12. The summit had critical implications for the advancement of sustainable peace and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
But the world has largely overlooked the massive humanitarian crisis that has taken hold in the DPRK. The United Nations has assessed that in the DPRK, over 10 million people – or 40% of the population – require humanitarian assistance. One in five children in the country suffers stunted growth because of chronic malnutrition. Too many of these children will not survive at all, and others will suffer lifelong consequences, including developmental delays that will hamper their ability to learn and fulfill their potential as adults. Almost 40% of the population lacks reliable access to safe water, and more than a third do not have adequate access to essential health services.
Media coverage of this protracted crisis has been scant, and international donors have cut funding to the UN managed humanitarian appeal, so humanitarian agencies have been forced to significantly scale back lifesaving programs, such as nutrition support. This puts lives at risk and threatens to reverse improvements in child and maternal mortality rates and other progress of recent years.
This situation cannot stand. That is why I am traveling on a mission to the DPRK: to raise awareness that the world needs to act now to help improve the everyday lives of millions of people who are suffering. In addition to meeting with government officials and humanitarian agencies, I will visit South Hwanghea province, where large numbers of people need humanitarian assistance. I plan to see firsthand how the United Nations and partners are ensuring ordinary people have the nutritional support and access to clean water and essential health services they need, as well as other critical programs. Most importantly, I will meet people benefiting from lifesaving UN assistance – and others who could do so should funds allow.
This is a crucial time for someone in my position to visit the country, as the funding gap comes as humanitarian access has significantly improved across DPRK in recent years. In other words, if donors step up now and provide the needed funding, the United Nations and its partners will be able swiftly to scale up delivery of aid to those most in need and closely monitor the deliveries so that donors know their funds are well spent.
There are other challenges, including the unintentional negative impact that sanctions are having on aid delivery. While international sanctions imposed on DPRK clearly exempt humanitarian activities, in practice they have resulted in delays in moving humanitarian supplies into the country and a collapse in the banking channels needed to transfer in money.
I hope that recent diplomatic developments will help resolve these issues, so that in the future we can fully respond to the ongoing crisis. The millions of people in DPRK who are dependent on assistance to obtain their next meal cannot afford to wait.
I thank the three generous donors – Canada, Sweden and Switzerland – who have provided $11.6 million for the UN-managed Needs and Priorities Plan, which outlines what the agencies working in DPRK need to support 6 million people this year. But that is little more than 10% of the $111 million required to assist the most vulnerable 6 million people in the country.
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Humanitarian agencies in DPRK need more money for vaccines, medicines, lifesaving therapies for malnourished children and safe drinking water. We must not wait for geopolitics to run its course to alleviate the suffering of millions of people.