Nov. 25 (UPI) -- A U.N. investigator said he has heard of reports North Korea may have freed as many as 7,000 prisoners, after a report suggested the regime let go of captives suffering from malnutrition.
U.N. Special Rapporteur on North Korean human rights Tomás Ojea Quintana said Tuesday during a meeting of the International Parliamentarians' Coalition for North Korean Refugees and Human Rights that he had heard of the news of the liberation of prisoners from North Korean camps, but North Korea has yet to confirm the report, South Korean newspaper Donga Ilbo reported Wednesday.
Quintana, who made the remarks by video, also said there is lack of information on the prisoners, including the regime's motives for letting them go. It is also unclear whether the prisoners were men, women, or a mix of both, he said.
North Korea has said there have been "zero" cases of the coronavirus, but concerns about COVID-19 spreading among malnourished North Korean prisoners could have been a motive for the state's decision, according to the Donga.
Quintana's statement comes after Radio Free Asia's Korean service reported about 7,000 convicted people may have been released from about 25 detention centers.
According to RFA's North Korea-based sources, North Korean residents of North Pyongan Province are agitated because the decree requires them to provide material support to the newly released prisoners. Many of the prisoners' families were dispersed and broken up.
RFA's sources also said the prisoners were in poor health due to inadequate food during detention. Residents are upset the state is passing on the responsibility, but they are also collecting food and taking care of people, the report says.
The prisoners may have been released following a pardon from leader Kim Jong Un during the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party.
On Wednesday Quintana also held a videoconference with Lee Rae-jin, the South Korean man whose brother was shot and burned in North Korean territory in September.
Quintana said the family of the slain man should have access to information about the incident from Seoul and that they have the right to receive compensation.