SEOUL: The United Nations' humanitarian chief said Wednesday he had seen "clear evidence" of need in North Korea — where one fifth of children are malnourished — during a rare trip.
Mark Lowcock's visit to the impoverished, isolated country this week is the first such trip by a UN undersecretary for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator since 2011.
"More than half of children in rural areas ... have no clean water," he said in a video posted on Twitter. "Something like 20% of the children in the country have malnutrition".
One hospital he visited had 140 patients with tuberculosis but had drugs for only 40 of them, Lowcock added, saying: "There's a very clear humanitarian need".
About 10.6 million people among the country's 25 million population need humanitarian assistance, the UN said, also noting "disparities" in access to basic health services between rural and urban areas.
Mortality rates for under-fives are 20% higher in the countryside than in towns, it said, adding a shortage of funding had forced it to stop nutrition support to kindergartens since November 2017.
The UN earlier this year called for US$111 million, (RM447 million) in aid to help improve nutrition, health and sanitation in the North but the programme remains 90% underfunded.
The North has a fragile economy and has long struggled to feed its people, and is under multiple layers of UN Security Council sanctions over a series of nuclear and missile tests staged in violation of UN resolutions.
NGOs have told AFP that the enforcement of sanctions has hampered their operations.
The food situation has improved in recent years, partly due to reforms in agriculture and increasing trade at state-sanctioned private markets, but the nation remains vulnerable to natural disasters while medical services remain poor in many regions.