Nearly one-third of children in North Korea suffer from malnutrition, according to UNICEF's representative in Pyongyang.
Desiree Jongsma, who took office in August, talked about the bleak conditions in the reclusive country during an interview with The Asahi Shimbun.
She noted that the problem of malnutrition was also acute during the regime headed by the late Kim Jong Il. Kim's son, Kim Jong Un, took over after his father died in December 2011.
She urged Japan, which has imposed economic sanctions against North Korea to protest its nuclear and missile development, to understand the plight of the country's citizens.
"It is important for other countries to know the situation of children and women in the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea)," said Jongsma, 52.
As head of the United Nations Children's Fund in North Korea, Jongsma, a Dutch national, arranges supplies of materials, maintains facilities and advises on educational programs. The office opened in Pyongyang in 1996 and now has 58 staff members.
A study by UNICEF and other organizations in 2009 found that 32.4 percent of children under age 5 suffered from chronic malnutrition.
UNICEF has continued to study the nutrition status of the country, and Jongsma said the situation remains serious.
Nearly a quarter of women aged between 15 and 49 are malnourished, the study said, and the situation is more severe in rural villages and towns. In northern Ryanggang province, about half the children are brought up undernourished, it added.
"It is important to take in a diverse food basket with a variety of micronutrients, but this has been difficult, especially in disaster situations such as floods," Jongsma said.
Kim Jong Un, who assumed the post of First Secretary of the Workers Party of Korea in April, announced in September the government will extend the period of universal compulsory education from the current 11 years to 12 years.
Jongsma is hopeful about the new regime. Kim had demonstrated his concern for children on a number of occasions.
"The DPRK accepted the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990," Jongsma said. "UNICEF has the same expectations from governments anywhere in the world that are party to the CRC. At the same time, UNICEF is there to provide assistance to meet the CRC obligations."
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