North Koreans ‘starving’ after virus closes border

Food insecurity in North Korea is deepening and some people are “starving” after it closed the border with China and took other steps against COVID-19, a UN rights expert has warned.

The hermetic totalitarian state, which has yet to confirm a single case of the novel coronavirus, introduced a range of other measures to try and prevent an outbreak.

Tomas Ojea Quintana, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the country, called for urgent action from Pyongyang and the international community to relieve the suffering.

“Lack of food had a devastating impact in the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) in the 1990s, and prospects of a further deepening of food shortages and widespread food insecurity are alarming,” he said.

Hundreds of thousands are believed to have died during a famine in the mid to late 1990s, a period known as the “Arduous March” in the North.

Before the coronavirus crisis, more than 40 percent of people in North Korea were already considered food insecure, with many suffering malnutrition.

One in five children under the age of five in the country are stunted, World Food Programme spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs told a virtual briefing on Tuesday.

“Malnutrition on this scale means irreversible damage is being done to hundreds of thousands of children,” she said.

The decision five months ago to close the border with China, and putting thousands into isolation, are exacerbating the situation, said Quintana — an independent expert who does not speak on behalf of the UN but who reports his findings to it.

North Korea’s trade with China in March and April this year dropped by more than 90 percent, leaving many living in the border areas with no income, he said.

“There have been reports of an increase of homeless people in large cities, including kotjebi (street children), and medicine prices have reportedly skyrocketed,” his statement said.

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