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Media Statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

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GENEVA/SEOUL (9 June 2020) - The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) recommends several concrete actions to the Government of DPRK and the international community in order to protect human rights of people in the DPRK amid efforts to contain COVID-19.

HEALTH

On 21 January 2020, the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea suspended all travel in and out of the country, imposed travel restriction between cities and regions and introduced strict quarantine measures. Together with extensive public health information campaigns, focusing on the Government’s prevention efforts, these measures aimed to protect North Koreans from COVID-19. However, further information about quarantined people, treatment of patients with possible symptoms and protection of vulnerable groups has not been accessible. Of special concern is the limited capacity of hospitals. The obstacles facing international humanitarian actors in the country also risks negatively impacting the right to access to health care.

“I welcome efforts made by the Government of the DPRK and encourage it to comply with the COVID-19 Guidance issued by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which calls for solidarity and cooperation to tackle the virus, and to mitigate the effects of measures designed to halt its spread. This pandemic concerns the whole world, and no single country can avoid its consequences”, the Special Rapporteur said.

In addition, he recommended the Government of the DPRK (i) to further seek international assistance for testing and make public and transparent disaggregated data related to the pandemic, at a minimum by sex, age, and disability, necessary to inform health responses and identify those most at risk of being left behind; (ii) to respect the freedom to seek and receive information and contents through any media and regardless of frontiers, especially by allowing the use of electronic communication needed during lockdowns, quarantines or other special measures. People have a right to access to full and unbiased news that directly affect their lives; and (iii) within the containment measures against COVID-19, to facilitate access to the country by international organizations providing humanitarian assistance.

FOOD INSECURITY

The Special Rapporteur expressed concern that the impact of COVID-19 measures on the economy, is causing further difficulties for people who are already in vulnerable situations. DPRK’s trade with China in March and April declined by over 90 per cent following the border shutdown. Hence, many people in the border areas in the North have lost their income from commercial activities. The situation in inland could be worse. There have been reports of an increase of homeless people, including kotjebi (street children), in large cities. In some places, the price of medicines has reportedly skyrocketed.

Over 40 per cent of people were already food insecure prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of them suffering malnutrition and stunted growth. Only one third of children aged 6 to 23 months received the minimum acceptable diet, and pregnant and lactating women were particularly affected by malnutrition. The Food and Agriculture Organization has designated the DPRK as a country facing food shortages. Those who have lost their income do not have money to buy food in the market. The public distribution system continues to be dysfunctional. It was reported that an increasing number of families eat only twice a day, or eat only corn, and there are reports that some are starving. Soldiers reportedly also suffer from food shortages.

“Under the pervasive discrimination in the public distribution system, ordinary citizens, including farmers, do not receive rations. Lack of food had a devastating impact in DPRK in the 1990s, and prospects of a further deepening of food shortages and widespread food insecurity is alarming. The Government must take swift action on this matter by prioritizing allocations of financial resources and allowing the humanitarian aid to be delivered on the ground without restrictions”, stressed the Special Rapporteur, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.

PRISONERS

Prisoners in the DPRK receive very little and poor quality food, and malnutrition is common in prisons. In many cases, prisoners depend on food brought by their families. Access to safe water is limited, sanitation facilities are inadequate, and health services barely exist. While COVID-19 cases have not been reported in the country, the potential impact of any future outbreak is a serious concern.   

“The Government should follow the guidelines in the UN Joint Statement on COVID-19 in prisons and other closed settings, and abide with the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules)” underscored the Special Rapporteur. “In particular, the secrecy surrounding the political prison camps (kwanliso) remains of the utmost concern. Accounts refer to frequent deaths of prisoners due to hard work, lack of food, contagious diseases and overcrowding. The Government of the DPRK must provide information about these prisoners and allow independent monitoring. Their status amounts to enforced disappearance of persons.”

The Special Rapporteur called once again for the consideration of release of prisoners in particular those in vulnerable conditions: older, ill and undernourished persons, persons with disabilities, children, pregnant and lactating mothers and nursing parents. In addition, alternatives to detention should be implemented to mitigate the risk of harm within places of detention, including for persons who have committed minor, petty and non-violent offenses or those with imminent release dates. "Other countries have also released prisoners to prevent COVID-19; North Korea should follow suit" he remarked.

REUNION OF SEPARATED FAMILIES

The Special Rapporteur urged the Government of the DPRK to promptly resume engagement with the Republic of Korea on the reunion of separated families. Despite commitments made, no reunion event has taken place since August 2018, and aged family members cannot wait any longer.

“COVID-19 is not an excuse to neglect contacts between the families. Even before the pandemic, the technology was conveniently installed for video communications. For aged family members this could be the last opportunity to have a much needed exchange with relatives”, said the Special Rapporteur. “Humanitarian grounds, but also human rights of families realized in article 10 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, should brush away any pretended political obstacles that have frustrated reunions”, he further emphasized.

 

HUMANITARIAN AID AND IMPACT OF SANCTIONS

Humanitarian actors in the country, including the UN Country Team, are facing difficulties in their operations due to suspended access outside of Pyongyang, lack of information, stranded humanitarian assistance items including vaccination stocks on the border, and shortages of staff members in the country.

The Government should provide unhindered access to humanitarian actors who are already in Pyongyang as well as those who are willing to come and assist. The UN Sanctions Committee has accelerated the exemption process for COVID-19 related humanitarian assistance, but such assistance continues to be subject to sanctions.

The COVID-19 crisis once again brings to the Special Rapporteur’s attention the economic hardships facing people in the DPRK, and the detrimental impact of sanctions on the fulfilment of basic economic and social rights. The international community should no longer overlook how the impact of sanctions on energy is affecting agricultural production by affecting transportation, machinery, and production of fertilizers. The way some sectorial exports bans are leading to unemployment in the textile, mining and seafood industries must also be considered. The lack of income for individuals affected undermines the fulfilment of the right to food and other rights.

“In a context where the COVID-19 is bringing drastic economic hardship worldwide, any sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council that impact on the livelihood of people and hinder the Government’s capacity to respond to COVID-19 should be sincerely reconsidered”, the Special Rapporteur stated, echoing calls made by the Secretary General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights. “The international community, in particular some permanent members of the Security Council, should no longer rest on the paradox of sanctioning inputs needed to increase food production, while then offering food relief. Any gains from lifting of sanctions should be channeled towards the most vulnerable, including by strengthening the right to food and to health”, he closed.

COOPERATION AND PEACE

While the Government’s prompt and decisive measures in responding to COVID-19 may have helped to contain the outbreak in the country, the Government should not further isolate itself from the international community. On the contrary, the DPRK should embrace international cooperation and solidarity to combat the pandemic, and participate without hesitation in the health response, and in all relevant issues, including human rights.

“This spirit of unity and cooperation emerging worldwide to address the COVID-19 challenges, should also inspire stakeholders to search for a peaceful end to the conflict on the Korean Peninsula, born during a war which this year will mark the 70th anniversary”, stated the Special Rapporteur. “Such an initiative to search for peaceful end of the war will generate the atmosphere and space needed to further discuss denuclearization, less isolation, more access, and human rights improvements”, he  concluded.