Tomás Ojea Quintana told the General Assembly’s human rights committee and at a previous press conference that North Koreans face food shortages and collapsing livelihoods, and that the most vulnerable children and the elderly are at risk of starving to death. He said he was also “really, really concerned” about the extent of hunger in the political prison camps.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – the official name of the North – has closed its borders to prevent the pandemic, which Ojea Quintana said would have “a devastating impact” on people’s right to health, as the health infrastructure of the DPRK suffers from underinvestment and a critical shortage of supplies caused by underlying human rights issues.
“The draconian measures that the DPRK government has taken to prevent the entry of COVID-19 include a policy of shooting people who try to enter or leave the country,” he said.
In his final report to the General Assembly after six years as a UN special investigator on human rights in the DPRK, Ojea Quintana added that “the increased restrictions on freedom of movement and the closure of national borders have stifled market activity that has become essential for access to basic necessities, including food.
He said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has recognized the “grim” food situation and is investing in efforts to prevent famine in the country.
Nonetheless, following the border closures, he said, “humanitarian rescue work by the United Nations and other international actors has also come to a halt, with no international United Nations personnel currently in operation. the country ”and the diplomats continuing to leave.
“The people of the DPRK should not have to choose between fear of hunger and fear of COVID-19,” Ojea Quintana said.
He said the pandemic has demonstrated that the only way to fight a virus that does not respect international borders is international cooperation.
“However, the grim irony is that the absence of international staff can strengthen those inside the country who seek permanent isolation,” he said.
The DPRK has rejected a vaccine offer from the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, an ambitious plan to purchase and deliver coronavirus vaccines to the world’s poorest people, Ojea Quintana said, “and there is a discussion as to whether the international community should offer North Korea large-scale population vaccination.
It is clear that the DPRK fears a COVID-19 outbreak in the country, he said, “and unless the entire population is vaccinated, the borders may continue to be closed.”
Ojea Quintana said there were also ideas for opening special zones to trade with China in the border area while protecting the population from COVID-19.
He said trade with China has given North Koreans the opportunity to survive and earn a living.
In his report to the General Assembly, the UN investigator said he recommended that in light of the pandemic, the Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against the DPRK for its nuclear program “reassess the sanctions regime in these circumstances and, if necessary, to relax these sanctions.
While humanitarian aid to the DPRK is exempt from sanctions, Ojea Quintana said the sanctions have had unintended consequences on ordinary people.
For example, he said, the UN sanctions against the export of textiles and seafood – industries where women are the predominant workers – have resulted in the loss of their jobs for women. women who are the breadwinner.
Ojea Quintana said he recognized the paradox of the deterioration of social and economic rights in the DPRK as the government continues to test missiles, “likely diverting resources that should be allocated to these areas”.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in response to Ojea Quintana’s report that “the simple truth is that the DPRK regime itself is responsible for the humanitarian situation in the country.”
He said the sanctions remain in place, but the United States is involved in efforts to provide humanitarian aid to North Koreans most in need.