U.N. report: North Korea food shortages, human rights abuses worst in years

Human rights violations are worsening in North Korea under a prolonged COVID-19 border lockdown, a U.N. report said Friday. File Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
1 of 4 | Human rights violations are worsening in North Korea under a prolonged COVID-19 border lockdown, a U.N. report said Friday. File Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

SEOUL, March 18 (UPI) -- Under prolonged COVID-19 border closures and a growing crackdown on citizens, North Korea is facing its worst food and human rights situation in years, according to a report released Friday by a United Nations investigator.

Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, said in the report that conditions in the secretive state have deteriorated over the six years that he has held the position.


"The special rapporteur is gravely concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation under further isolation of the country, in particular the aggravation of the food crisis and stricter control of people's freedoms," Ojea Quintana wrote in the final report of his tenure, which will be presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday.

Over 41% of the population is food insecure, the report said, while just 29% of children age 6-23 months are receiving the minimum acceptable diet as defined by the World Health Organization. North Korea's food production was 4.6 million tons last year, according to the Korea Institute for National Unification, while the country needs more than 6 million tons to feed its people.


"Chronic shortfalls in the availability of adequate and nutritious food year-round has been a continuing preoccupation over the years, and now with the country still in the grip of strict COVID-19 measures, concerns over the right to food are more serious than at any point during the special rapporteur's six years on the mandate," the report said.

The report also cited worsening human rights violations, including arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, forced labor and restrictions on freedom of expression, religion and movement.

"This situation has not improved during [my] time in the mandate," Ojea Quintana said. "On the contrary, control over the population has further tightened, particularly since the beginning of 2020 in the context of COVID-19 prevention measures."

The flow of North Korean defectors to South Korea has trickled to a near standstill over the past two years, with only 63 escapees arriving in 2021, down from 1,047 in 2019.

An estimated 1,500 North Koreans are being detained in China, Ojea Quintana said, and are at risk of being repatriated once the border reopens, where they will likely receive severe punishment in political prison camps.

The rights investigator called on China to adhere to the international legal principle of non-refoulement, which holds that no one will be returned to a country where they face torture and ill treatment.


Ojea Quintana also recommended that the international community find a way to provide North Korea with 60 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, enough to cover two shots for the entire population. He said the effort could kickstart a new strategy of engagement with Pyongyang.

"The current approach by the international community is not securing improvements to the situation of human rights in [North Korea]," the report said. " A new way of thinking needs to take hold."

Ojea Quintana visited Seoul last month to gather information for the report. His term as special rapporteur will end in July.

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