11 July 2018

Note to Correspondents: Transcript of the Press briefing by United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock in Pyongyang, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

I would like to thank you for joining me here at the UN compound in Pyongyang, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. 

Let me start by thanking the Government for their support for this visit. Today I met with the President of the Presidium and was provided with a description of their commitment on denuclearisation and how they want to move forward, and how they are putting a much stronger emphasis on humanitarian growth. They are keen to work with humanitarian agencies and are open to additional humanitarian assistance, and are also keen to deal with humanitarian issues separately from political dynamics. I have also met with the Minister of Public Heath, and had a series of good discussions with senior officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including with Vice Minister Pak. 

Let me describe to you why I wanted to come here and what my objectives have been. 

Firstly, I wanted to understand the humanitarian issues here in the DPR, particularly because it is a long time since the ERC has been here, and because the UN agencies have been doing a lot of important work to support the country in dealing with humanitarian issues and in supporting the economy. The second reason was to see the work of the UN agencies and to understand what access the UN now has to do its work in the country. And thirdly, I wanted to form my own impression about what additional help the United Nations might be able to provide here given the current context.
I also wanted to understand the nature of the humanitarian challenges here. Firstly, it is important to recognise that there has been lots of progress on things which are reducing humanitarian suffering. If you go back 20 years or so there were very many large-scale humanitarian problems resulting in enormous loss of life and in the recent period there has been a lot of progress. There are though large numbers of people who still need assistance; there is a significant problem of malnutrition with something like 20 per cent of children stunted because of malnutrition which impairs their life chances. If children are not well nourished in the early years, this affects their development and their prospects for the whole of their life. Something like half of all children in the country in rural areas are not drinking safe water. Too much of the water is contaminated, which is a cause of disease and threatens the development of too many children. And although there has been progress in improving health services, and although I have met some very inspiring health workers in county hospitals, there is a shortage of drugs and medical supplies and equipment, which is making it very difficult for medical authorities to meet the needs of all the people in a way that would pass basic humanitarian thresholds. So there are still significant humanitarian challenges here despite the progress that has been made.

I was very pleased to visit two counties in South Hwanghae province yesterday where I saw farms, kindergartens, nurseries and the two county hospitals, and saw amazing work being done by my colleagues in United Nations agencies in support of the authorities and institutions in the country. I was very struck by the life-saving work being done in the health sector especially, but also by the support for water and sanitation. We visited a family who had just been given access to a more reliable clean water source which was a transformational thing for the life of the family. We saw the work of the World Food Programme in nurseries providing children who are at risk of malnutrition with fortified food and biscuits. And we saw the work of the Food and Agriculture Organisation in trying to improve the productivity in farming communities. 
This is a country that remains very vulnerable to natural disasters. We are talking today on a day when there is a lot of rain and the river in the city is very full – and floods create humanitarian challenges. But, equally, the country is vulnerable to drought, and the work the UN is doing on food security in support of the government is extremely important.

I just want to give a little insight into the impact of shortages of drugs and commodities in the health sector. I went yesterday to a county hospital, not a hospital the UN has provided large quantities of support to, and there a group of well-trained health professionals explained they are treating 140 patients who have tuberculosis, whose needs they’re trying to meet, but they only have drugs for 40 of those people. And that captures one of the significant problems the UN is trying to help with, because shortages of drugs and medical supplies create all sorts of dilemmas for the doctors who have to try and work out what to do, and all sorts of wider problems in the health sector. I do think that supporting, on humanitarian grounds, doctors and nurses trying to provide life-saving assistance to people is a very important thing to do.

One of the important points of background for my visit is to have an understanding of our ability to raise resources for the UN’s humanitarian work here. This year, as set out in the Needs and Priorities Plan that we published a few months ago and was discussed with all the relevant parties, the UN is trying to raise $111 million to meet humanitarian needs in the areas I’ve talked about – health, water and sanitation, and food security – for about 6 million people. Just before I started my visit, the situation was that we had raised about 10 per cent of that money as a result of generous donations from the Governments of Sweden, Switzerland and Canada, but that leaves us with a very large funding shortfall. 

One of things I will be doing when I return to New York in talking to the Member States of the UN is trying to draw people’s attention to the very real humanitarian challenges here, and to say to them that the UN has good programmes, which can save lives, and we have better access across the country for UN staff than we have had in the past. We are able to give people assurances that funds given to us are well spent and save lives and reduce suffering. We would like more progress on access and monitoring and data, so we can target our assistance. The core point is: there is a humanitarian need, we can meet it and we can tell people a convincing and persuasive story about how their money is used if they provide us with more funds. 

Q. Can you summarise what are the most vital challenges facing this country that the UN and other humanitarian agencies working here need to address? [Associated Press]
A. Like all countries, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea faces a lot of challenges, but my focus is on the humanitarian issues and the core humanitarian issues are around malnutrition, better water and sanitation, and more life-saving drugs and other medical supplies in hospitals like the ones I visited. 

Q. What is the specific plan to provide assistance in the near future by the UN? [Xinhua]
Our top priority is to secure funding for the Needs and Priorities Plan that I’ve described. We are trying to raise $111 million for all those needs I’ve described. The United Nations is only able to provide humanitarian assistance if Member States provide us the resources to do so. So, what I will be trying to do is work with the Member States to find additional resources to get our plan better funded. That is the priority.

Q. You mentioned that you met with Kim Yong Nam and the Vice Minister from the MFA, so I would like to know what the attitude of the DPRK Government is towards humanitarian issues? [CCTV]
The Government has emphasised to me the country’s strategy of development and self-reliance. They have talked about the new strategic line of developing the economy as a top priority. They have obviously briefed me on their perspective on the geo-political issues and denuclearisation, and they recognise that’s not my responsibility. But they have also said to me that they value humanitarian assistance provided by the United Nations and that, with lots of other countries, it is completely consistent to have a strategy of developing the economy and being self-reliant, and in the meantime seeking assistance with life-saving work of the sort that I have described. They have raised a number of  issues with me in our discussions about how that humanitarian work could be done even better, and I will be taking those issues back to New York, and doing what I can to see progress is made.

Q. You have said 20 per cent of children are suffering from malnutrition. Where are these figures from? [Xinhua]
That figure is actually the number of children suffering from stunting, which is a failure of the child being able to develop physically and in terms of cognitive function as a result of inadequate nutrition. That figure in 2011 was about 28 per cent, so that’s an improvement. From 28 per cent to 20 per cent is an improvement, but 20 per cent is still a high number. In terms of data sources, UNICEF, together with the Central Bureau of Statistics, published late last month a Multi Cluster Indicator Survey, which involved interviews with 8,500 households to get data which is representative of the situation overall in the country. What I would say is that colleagues in UNICEF, who I discussed this with both here and in preparing for my visit, say that relative to other countries, data quality and availability of data on need in their opinion is quite good. So, we have a good degree of confidence that we understand what the needs are and where the needs are, based on factual information gathered in a professional way.

Thank you very much indeed.