WHO head visits DPR Korea

On her first visit to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in mid-November, WHO Director-General, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, found a country struggling with a daunting catalogue of deprivation: "They are poor, they have a big burden of disease, and children are suffering," she told journalists after her visit.

The main purpose of Brundtland's visit was to open a permanent WHO office in Pyongyang, the capital, where only three other UN organizations have a permanent representative — the World Food Programme, the United Nations Development Programme, and UNICEF. During her visit she met with Mr Kim Yong Nam, President of the Praesidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, Foreign Minister Mr Kim Yong Nam, and Health Minister Dr Kim Su Hak.

Outside of major cities, medical resources, she noted, particularly medicines, are sorely lacking, as are other essentials, such as clean running water and electricity. There is also a lack of reliable information: "We don't have a full picture of everything ... we don't have concrete numbers."

What information there is, however, suggests that some malnutrition persists despite food aid and a better harvest this year. Diseases related to malnutrition are certainly rife, particularly among children. The country is also facing an upsurge of malaria — an estimated 300 000 cases have occurred this year — as well as of tuberculosis, which currently affects about 33 000 people. Overall mortality has also been on the upswing and the current mortality rate is about 30–40% higher than 15 years ago, equivalent to an increase from 1.4 million to 2 million deaths a year in a population of 22 million.

Brundtland said the country "will need to give health a higher priority and channel more of its own resources towards ensuring that basic health services can be provided. But it cannot do so on its own." WHO has appealed to the international community to donate US$ 8 million to restoring what in the 1960s and 1970s was an extensive, well-functioning health system providing free care to all.

John Maurice, Bulletin

World Health Organization Genebra - Genebra - Switzerland
E-mail: bulletin@who.int