U.N. expert says some are 'starving' in North Korea

GENEVA (Reuters) - A United Nations human rights expert voiced alarm on Tuesday at “widespread food shortages and malnutrition” in North Korea, made worse by a nearly five-month border closure with China and strict quarantine measures against COVID-19.

FILE PHOTO: The flag of North Korea is seen in Geneva, Switzerland, June 20, 2017. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, urged the U.N. Security Council to reconsider sanctions imposed on the isolated country over its nuclear and missile programmes, so as to ensure food supplies.

North Korea, where a famine in the mid-1990s is believed to have killed 3 million people, does not report COVID-19 cases to the World Health Organization.

The pandemic has brought “drastic economic hardship” to North Korea, Ojea Quintana said, with a 90% fall in trade with China in March and April leading to lost incomes.

Expressing concern about reports of an increase of homeless people in large cities and skyrocketing medicine prices, he said in a statement: “An increasing number of families eat only twice a day, or eat only corn, and some are starving.”

Ojea Quintana urged Pyongyang to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered “without restrictions”. Operations have been suspended outside the capital, leaving vaccine stocks and other aid “stranded” at the border.

He urged North Korea to free prisoners during the pandemic, citing accounts of prisoner deaths caused by hard work, lack of food, contagious diseases and overcrowding.

Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N.’s World Food Programme, told reporters the humanitarian situation in North Korea remained “bleak”.

More than 10 million people, or 40% of the population, need humanitarian aid, she said. The WFP hopes to reach 1.2 million people there with food rations this year.

Byrs said widespread malnutrition had damaged the health and development of children - with one in five under the age of five stunted - as well as pregnant and nursing mothers.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alex Richardson, Giles Elgood and Timothy Heritage