UN Rights Official Warns of Starvation, Poverty in North Korea From Long COVID-19 Lockdown

North Koreans are starving to death, with children and elderly resorting to begging in the streets or risking execution by breaking laws to obtain food from China, a new report by the UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights says, calling for the country to face international justice for mistreating its population.

“Prolonged COVID-19 prevention measures have resulted in a drastic decline in trade and commercial activities and severe economic hardship to the general population, causing increased food insecurity,” said the report, presented by Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva by teleconference this week.

“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,” said the report.

To stave off widespread hunger, people are more willing to engage in illegal activities like smuggling when punishments are at their most severe, with penalties as severe as shooting those who go close to the border.  Those who are caught in violation of quarantine suffer severe punishment, according to the report.

“In December 2020, a man in his 50s who was allegedly involved in illicit trade with China was reportedly publicly executed. In November 2020, two border guard officers and two rank-and-file soldiers allegedly involved in smuggling were reportedly executed. The same month, a high-profile moneychanger was allegedly executed in Pyongyang,” the report said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made an already dire human rights situation worse. In January 2020, Beijing and Pyongyang closed the entirety of the 840-mile Sino-Korean border and suspended all trade.

The closure was devastating for the North Korean economy, already pinched by U.S. and UN nuclear sanctions. Much of North Korean commerce depends on the purchase and sale of imported Chinese goods to the point that the border closure killed off economic activity in entire towns, leaving people with no way to support themselves.

Quintana warned that the closure of the border with China and restrictions on the movement of people could bring on a “serious food crisis.” Additionally, the pandemic has disrupted the flow of aid sent by the international community.

“While the sanctions committee has expedited exemptions for humanitarian assistance, humanitarian goods bound for the DPR Korea have remained at the border with China for months due to import restrictions causing delays in the distribution of lifesaving goods,” said Quintana.

The report also expressed concern over the construction of a new prison facility to hold quarantine violators, citing rights violations in North Korean prisons as documented in other UN reports.

“The time has come for the Security Council to decide on the referral of the situation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the International Criminal Court, as it has been repeatedly encouraged by this Honorable Human Rights Council and the General Assembly,” Quintana said.

“Failing to take action may be legal, but it’s not justifiable under the UN charter,” Quintana said, adding that the UN Security Council was also to blame for its inaction against the abuses.

The report was not clear who in North Korea would be referred to the Netherlands-based ICC, which tries individuals as opposed to nations. The International Court of Justice (ICJ), the U.N.’s top court, settles disputes between nations.

“The isolation of (North Korea) during the COVID-19 pandemic means the isolation of ordinary people who are already subject to patterns of serious human rights abuses,” he added.

The report urged the Security Council to “adopt targeted sanctions against those who are most responsible for crimes against humanity,” and should “consider lifting sanctions that negatively affect people’s human rights.”

The Rural Development Administration under South Korea’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs announced its estimates in a report in December, which said North Korea likely produced 4.4 million tons of food grains and potatoes in 2020, down 240,000 tons from 2019.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP) of the United Nations released reports in November, expressing concerns about food shortages in North Korea due to COVID-19 and damage from severe floods and typhoons over the summer. The FAO report said that North Korea was one of 45 countries requiring external assistance for food.

Though the projections look dire for Pyongyang, they pale in comparison to the famine that struck North Korea in the 1990s.

The 1994-1998 famine — the result of economic mismanagement and the collapse of North Korea’s patron the Soviet Union – killed millions, almost 10 percent of the population by some estimates.

According to a 1998 nutritional survey conducted by UNICEF and the World Food Program, which surveyed children in 3,600 North Korean households, 62.3 percent were stunted, and 60.6 percent were considered moderately or severely underweight at that time. 

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