About the Author
Kee Park and Miles Kim
Dr. Kee Park is the Director of North Korea Program at the Korean American Medical Association. Miles Kim is working as a North Korea policy research assistant at Harvard Medical School with Dr. Park.
As humanitarian aid programs in North Korea continue to be underfunded, the most vulnerable lives continue to be endangered: these authors estimate that in 2018, 1200 infants and 72 pregnant women could have died because they were not provided with health kits for dealing with medical emergencies during childbirth.
In 2018, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) successfully reached only 3,750 pregnant women (1% of those targeted) with emergency reproductive health (ERH) kits, which include supplies to assist with postpartum hemorrhages and eclampsia–potentially life-threatening conditions during pregnancy and delivery.
The remaining 337,750 pregnant women targeted by the UNFPA in 2018 did not directly benefit from these life-saving kits.
The provision of reproductive supply kits shows a 35.5% reduction in neonatal deaths and a 32.2% reduction in maternal deaths, according to studies that were each carried out in both rural and hospital environments.
At this rate, if the UNFPA were able to provide kits to all remaining women, the lives of 72 women and 1200 infants would have been saved, when compared with the most current maternal and neonatal mortality rates in North Korea.
Simple treatments can make a large impact on reducing mortality: some of the most effective include relatively inexpensive drugs and supplements.
Oxytocin, for instance, halves the risk of postpartum hemorrhage (responsible for 29.3% of maternal deaths), and calcium supplements halve the risk of preeclampsia and eclampsia (responsible for 28% of maternal deaths). Both of these are included in the UNFPA’s Emergency Reproductive Health (ERH) kits.
It is worth noting that the UNFPA spent money on other programs besides supply kits, including deploying midwives and providing crucial training to health services providers.
But a large proportion of funds was not directly spent on the North Korean people—out of the $1.1 million dollars spent by the UNFPA in 2018, about half was spent on “analysis on population dynamics” and “organizational effectiveness,” according to the UNFPA website.
With the requested $4 million, a much larger proportion could have been spent on life-saving ERH kits and other direct programming, compared to just over half in 2018.
Thus, the funds to purchase and deliver supply kits, as well as other forms of aid, are essential, directly benefiting the most vulnerable people in North Korea.
For 2019, the UNFPA has targeted 395,000 pregnant North Korean women, once again requesting $4 million to fulfill the needs of the program.
While North Korea faces mounting pressure from the international community, NGOs and UN agencies that provide aid to its citizens also face funding challenges.
According to Pierre Peron, a spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the “absence of a banking channel for humanitarian transfers and challenges to the delivery of humanitarian supplies” has forced many agencies to either diminish or conclude operations in North Korea.
Just this June, Finnish NGO Fida International ended two decades of involvement in North Korea, citing “the tightening of international sanctions imposed by the U.S. over the last few months.”
Despite the rise in geopolitical tension, funds from countries like Switzerland and Sweden have continued to find their way to North Korea. It remains to be seen if other donor countries are willing to fund the humanitarian concerns of a country desperately in need.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: UNICEF