Rights abuses and hunger have worsened in North Korea amid drastic measures to avert a Covid-19 outbreak, a UN rights expert said, pointing to reports that people were dying of starvation.
The hermetic totalitarian state, which has yet to confirm a single case of the novel coronavirus, has closed its borders, locked down entire cities and taken a range of other steps to try to prevent an outbreak.
In a new report, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on the rights situation in North Korea, warned that “the drastic containment measures” appeared to be exacerbating “entrenched human rights violations” in the country.
The number of people managing to escape from North Korea dropped dramatically last year, when only 229 escapees arrived in the South, down from 1,047 in 2019, the report said.
It pointed to unconfirmed reports that the country has set up a kilometre-wide buffer zone along its borders, where law enforcement agents are authorised to “shoot on sight” anyone attempting to cross.
Several people had also reportedly been executed for breaking anti-epidemic measures, including for illicit trade with China, said Quintana – an independent expert who does not speak on behalf of the UN.
‘Serious food crisis’
His report voiced particular concern at the sharp reduction in trade and commercial activities and “severe economic hardship” caused by the measures in a country already fraught with food insecurity.
Hundreds of thousands are believed to have died during a famine in the mid- to late-1990s, a period known as the “Arduous March” in the North.
Before the coronavirus crisis, more than 45 per cent of people in North Korea were considered undernourished, the report said.
The impact of Covid-linked restrictions on trade with China, which shrank by 80 per cent last year, along with limited market activities, international sanctions and damage to agriculture caused by typhoons and floods last year, risked causing “a serious food crisis”, it warned.
“Deaths by starvation have been reported, as has an increase in the number of children and elderly people who have resorted to begging as families are unable to support them,” it said.
Humanitarian operations have meanwhile all but halted, with only three international aid workers currently in the country.
Quintana called on Pyongyang to ensure that the “negative consequences of prevention measures do not become disproportionately greater than the impact of the pandemic itself.”
According to the World Health Organisation, North Korea had by the end of last year conducted 13,259 Covid-19 tests, which all came back negative.
The country is awaiting vaccine deliveries through the Covax programme aimed at boosting access to the jabs in poorer nations.
It is due to receive more than 1.7 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine by the end of May, according to allocation figures published on March 2.