GENEVA (Reuters) - North Korea's health system would be the envy of many developing countries because of the abundance of medical staff that it has available, the head of the World Health Organization said on Friday.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, speaking a day after returning from a 2-1/2 day visit to the reclusive country, said malnutrition was a problem in North Korea but she had not seen any obvious signs of it in the capital Pyongyang.
North Korea -- which does not allow its citizens to leave the country -- has no shortage of doctors and nurses, in contrast to other developing countries where skilled healthcare workers often emigrate, she said.
This allows North Korea to provide comprehensive healthcare, with one "household doctor" looking after every 130 families, said the head of the United Nations health agency, praising North Korea's immunization coverage and mother and child care.
"They have something which most other developing countries would envy," Chan told a news conference, noting that her visit was a rare sign of the communist state's willingness to cooperate with outside agencies.
Chan's comments marked a significant change from the assessment of her predecessor, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who said in 2001 that North Korea's health system was near collapse.
Chan, who acknowledged that countries that she visits always try to look good while pointing to where they need help, met a series of North Korean officials, visited several hospitals, and also talked to Pyongyang-based diplomats, United Nations officials and representatives of the Red Cross.
The authorities acknowledge there is a problem with malnutrition, she said, but things have become better since famine in the 1990s and a series of natural disasters in 2001.
"Nutrition is an area that the government has to pay attention (to) and especially for pregnant women and for young children," Chan said.
Chan spent most of her brief visit in Pyongyang, and she said that from what she had seen there most people had the same height and weight as Asians in other countries, while there were no signs of the obesity emerging in some parts of Asia.
But she said conditions could be different in the countryside.
News reports said earlier this year that North Koreans were starving to death and unrest was growing as last year's currency revaluation caused prices to soar.
Chan, who described her visit as "technical and professional" -- in other words avoiding politics -- said the North Korean government's readiness to work with international agencies, such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, was encouraging.
The Global Fund requires countries it works with to provide sound data, account for resources contributed and allow access by officials, she noted.
"I can confirm that at least in the area of health the government is receptive to engagement with international partners," she said.
"They are receptive to requests for increasing transparency -- have a better quality data -- and being held accountable for the resources flowing into the country to improve health."
North Korea, whose human rights record has been strongly condemned by U.N. experts, is refusing to return to six-party talks about its nuclear program, which has led to U.N. sanctions being imposed after a nuclear test in May last year.
Tension is increasing with South Korea, with which the North fought a war in 1950-53, after the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel last month for which Seoul increasingly suspects Pyongyang.
But Chan praised a joint project between North and South Korea to improve women's and children's health, which she said was promoting dialogue and trust between the two rivals.
Last month, the WHO said North Korea has reduced deaths from surgery and among women in childbirth under the South Korea-funded program.