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Tuesday, 20 November, 2001, 08:19 GMT
WHO open for business in Pyongyang
North Korea rice paddy
Health problems linked to years of poor harvests
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has opened an office in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

WHO director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland and North Korean Public Health Minister Kim Su Hak attended the opening ceremony.

The health care system has more or less collapsed

WHO representative Eigel Sorensen
Mrs Brundtland has said the opening of the office is a confidence-building measure in relations with North Korea. She began a three-day visit on Saturday to assess the country's health system.

A WHO spokesman in Beijing said on Tuesday that the North's health care system was near collapse. WHO officials say the mortality rate in the North has risen by more than 35% in recent years.

'Deadly combination'

WHO representative Eigel Sorensen said the North was suffering from a "deadly combination" of harsh winters, food shortages and malnutrition.

North Korea boasted an extensive health infrastructure in the 1960s and 70s, which provided universal free health care for its population.

But in recent years, the system has been seriously strained, with essential drugs in short supply and many hospitals operating without heating or clean water supplies, and with intermittent electricity.

The WHO joins the World Food Programme, the UN Development Programme and Unicef as the fourth UN organisation to open a representative office in North Korea.

Mrs Brundtland is due to visit South Korea on Tuesday.

Step forward

Our Seoul correspondent, Caroline Gluck, says the opening of a permanent office in Pyongyang is a significant step forward for the agency.

The WHO has had an emergency liaison office in the North since 1997, but a representative office - with better resources and staffing - allows it to expand its work as well as focusing on longer-term issues such as technical collaboration and health policy development.

The WHO has been involved in emergency programmes to help North Korea fight diseases such as tuberculosis, polio and malaria - which has re-emerged as a serious problem - as well as training and technical assistance.

See also:

22 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
UN rushes aid to North Korea
23 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
New food crisis for North Korea
16 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
North Korea battered by tidal wave
21 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
N Korea faces desperate future
09 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
N Koreans 'starving to death'
30 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Where famine stalks the land
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