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DPRK: Humanitarian concerns growing amid COVID-19 responses, says UN expert

09 June 2020

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GENEVA / SEOUL (9 June 2020) – A UN independent expert is alarmed that widespread food shortages and malnutrition in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) have been exacerbated by COVID-19 measures and has called for urgent Government and international action to ensure food supplies.

In a statement released today, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, also outlined concrete measures to address five other areas of concern: health, prison conditions, family reunions, the impact of sanctions and international engagement.

"Lack of food had a devastating impact in the DPRK in the 1990s, and prospects of a further deepening of food shortages and widespread food insecurity are alarming," the Special Rapporteur said. "The Government must take swift action on this matter by prioritising allocations of financial resources and allowing humanitarian aid to be delivered on the ground without restrictions."

The border closure between the DPRK and China since 21 January 2020 has exacerbated the food crisis, devastating cross-border trade and sapping income from merchants. There have been reports of an increase of homeless people in large cities –including kotjebi (street children), and medicine prices have reportedly skyrocketed.

An increasing number of families eat only twice a day, or eat only corn, and some are starving. Soldiers reportedly also suffer from food shortages, the expert said.

The crisis highlights the economic hardships facing North Koreans, and the detrimental impact of sanctions on the fulfilment of basic economic and social rights.

"I note the COVID-19 related exemptions made by the 1718 Sanctions Committee. However, in a context where the pandemic is bringing drastic economic hardship to DPRK, I encourage the UN Security Council to reconsider sanctions, in light of the impact on the livelihoods of people and the Government's capacity to respond," the Special Rapporteur said. "I also call on the Government of the DPRK to expedite the lifting of restrictions on movement for humanitarian actors".

Ojea Quintana also expressed concern over the well-being of inmates in prisons where malnutrition is common. The situation could be worse in secretive political prison camps where accounts refer to frequent deaths due to hard work, lack of food, contagious diseases and overcrowding.

"The Government of DPRK must provide information about these prisoners and allow independent monitoring," he said, calling once again for the immediate release of those in vulnerable health conditions. "Other countries have also released persons in detention to prevent COVID-19; DPRK should follow suit."


Mr. Tomás Ojea Quintana (Argentina) was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea by the Human Rights Council in 2016. Mr. Ojea Quintana, a lawyer with extensive human rights experience, worked for the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, and represented the Argentinean NGO 'Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo' in cases concerning child abduction during the military regime. He is a former Head of OHCHR's human rights programme in Bolivia, and served as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar from 2008 to 2014. His mandate has most recently been renewed by Human Rights Council resolution 40/20.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page: DPRK

OHCHR Seoul Office

For more information and media requests please contact: Ms. Madoka Saji (+82 10-4230 3523 / [email protected])

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / [email protected]) and John Newland ([email protected])

Follow news related to the UN's independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts.

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