The U.N.’s independent human rights expert on North Korea warned Friday that the country is facing a worsening hunger crisis due to COVID-19, and children, the elderly and prisoners may be at particular risk of starvation.
“Even prior to the onset of the pandemic, over 40% of the people were food insecure, with many suffering from malnourishment and stunted growth,” Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, told reporters.
Special rapporteurs are appointed by the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council to monitor the rights situation in countries of particular concern.
Following the outbreak of the pandemic early in 2020, North Korean closed its border and has strictly enforced it, and imposed travel restrictions between cities and regions, leaving people without jobs and goods.
“The draconian steps that DPRK state has taken to prevent COVID-19 entering, include a policy of shooting individuals who try to enter or leave the country,” the special rapporteur said, using the abbreviation for North Korea’s formal name.
In his report Friday to the U.N. General Assembly committee that deals with human rights issues, Quintana said the price of staple items like rice and corn have risen in parts of the country, and there are shortages of essential medicines and medical supplies that come from neighboring China.
“The number of homeless people and street children is increasing. Those discharged from compulsory military service and returning home have no jobs, income, or food to survive,” he wrote in his annual report.
He said North Koreans should not have to choose between the fear of hunger and the fear of COVID-19.
Pyongyang has joined the global facility for obtaining COVID-19 vaccines, called Covax, but it has not fulfilled the necessary steps to receive vaccines through the facility, he noted.
Quintana, an Argentinian human rights lawyer, will conclude his mandate as special rapporteur at the end of this year. He also expressed growing concerns about prisoners’ access to adequate food.
Detainees often rely on their families to feed them in North Korea. He said with travel restrictions and growing economic difficulties, families may not be able to assist their incarcerated relatives.
For political prisoners, the situation is even more unclear, as the government denies the existence of forced labor camps, which, Quintana said in his view, “represent the most serious human rights situation in the country.”
“We are really, really concerned about to what extent the prisoners, especially those in the political prison camps, are facing hunger due to lack of adequate food,” he said.
Quintana said that North Korea is at an unprecedented level of isolation due to COVID-19 measures, expressing concern that could become its new normal. He warned that could negatively impact addressing domestic human rights issues – as well as issues of abductees from Japan and the separation of North and South Korean families.
“Without an environment of dialogue, without communication, without engagement, there is no hope for all these human rights grievances,” he said.
Regarding the role of international and bilateral sanctions imposed on the regime for its prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile programs, the special rapporteur wrote in his report that, “sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council should be reviewed and eased when necessary to both facilitate humanitarian and life-saving assistance and to enable the promotion of the right to an adequate standard of living of ordinary citizens.”
There are exemptions for humanitarian items, which are regularly granted, but some critics argue they are insufficient and also that companies are reluctant to supply sanctioned states lest they fall afoul of sanctions regulations.