North Koreans 'starving to death' as impact of COVID worsens

Jimmy Nsubuga
·3 min read
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the conference of the Central Military Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in this image released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 23, 2020. KCNA via REUTERS    ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA.     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (Reuters)

North Koreans are “starving to death” due to the worsening impact of the coronavirus pandemic, a United Nations investigator has said.

Drastic measures taken to contain COVID-19 have exacerbated human rights abuses and economic hardship for the country’s citizens, the UN's Tomas Ojea Quintana said in a report seen by Reuters on Wednesday.

North Korea, which has yet to report any confirmed COVID-19 cases despite sharing a border with China, has imposed border closings, banned most international travel and severely restricted domestic movement in the past year.

Reduced trade with China has led to a significant decrease in market activities, reducing earnings for many families reliant on small-scale market activities, Ojea Quintana said.

Watch: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un admits economic plan failed

“There have been shortages of essential goods, medicines, agricultural inputs for farming and raw materials for state-owned factories,” Ojea Quintana said, voicing concern that typhoons and floods last year could lead to a “serious food crisis”.

He added: “Deaths by starvation have been reported, as has an increase in the number of children and elderly people who have resorted to begging as families are unable to support them.”

Ojea Quintana, UN special rapporteur on human rights in the country, said further isolation with the outside world during the pandemic appeared to “exacerbate entrenched human rights violations”.

He urged North Korean authorities to ensure the “negative consequences of prevention measures do not become disproportionately greater than the impact of the pandemic itself”.

Humanitarian operations have nearly ground to a halt and only three international aid workers remain in North Korea, while relief goods have been stuck at the Chinese border for months due to import restrictions, he said.

There was no immediate reply to a Reuters query to North Korea’s mission to the UN in Geneva.

Pyongyang does not recognise the UN investigator’s mandate and has previously rejected the body's allegations of crimes against humanity committed by the state.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides a drill of mortar sub-units of North Korean Army in this image released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on April 10, 2020. KCNA/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
North Korea has been hit hard by the pandemic, according to a UN report (Reuters)

How has North Korea fared during the pandemic?

North Korea’s economy has been hit by both the coronavirus pandemic and floods, which prompted Pyongyang to shut its border with China and ditch outside aid.

The isolated economy, which is already suffering under US and UN sanctions, may have contracted by 8.5% last year, Fitch Solutions said, while South Korea’s Hana Institute of Finance estimated a decline of up to 10%.

The most significant blow came from a drop in trade with China, its top ally, which is responsible for around 90% of its trade.

Two-way trade plunged nearly 80% last year as of November from the same period of 2019 to $534.1m, Chinese customs data showed.

The pandemic likely had a more significant impact than international sanctions, severing nearly all foreign currency sources, including tourism, labour exports and overseas restaurants, experts say.

Reduced trade also led to a lack of fertiliser and farming tools, and severe floods exacerbated North Korea’s chronic food shortages.

The UN’s World Food Programme said in July, just before the monsoon season, that more than 10 million people, or 40% of the population, were already facing food shortages.

Economic concerns triggered volatility in fuel and food prices and exchange rates in unofficial markets, where most ordinary North Koreans buy their food.

The country claims to have had no COVID cases but it is set to receive 1.7 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine by the end of May, allocation figures from the GAVI vaccine alliance and the World Health Organization showed on Tuesday.

Watch: What is long COVID?