COVID-19 Responses And Human Rights In DPRK

A new report to the UN Security Council, conducted by Tomás Ojea-Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean human rights, calls for the country to face international justice for mistreating its population. On March 1st, the U.N investigator says that the citizens of North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), continue to be subjected to serious human rights violations from state agencies, which have been worsened amidst the ensuing pandemic. 

Experts have reported that the country’s COVID-19 responses to lockdowns and severe containment, including strict border restrictions, have further isolated the country’s people from the outside world. Since the beginning of the pandemic, DPRK had introduced aggressive measures of regulation, including sanctions of imprisonment and even execution in some cases. By severely limiting access for humanitarian operations or medical aid workers from providing relief to its citizens, these restrictions are especially concerning for the visibility and well-being of DPRK citizens, who are already subject to patterns of serious human rights abuses. In other words, these severe sanctions, including criminal apprehensions or even executions, have limited the imports of critical resources such as vaccines and COVID-19 tests as well as medicines into the country. Further, the pandemic has led to a drastic decrease in trade and commercial activities, causing severe inflation and economic hardship for the general population. With prices of basic necessities rising up to four times their original costs, the UN reports that these critical shortages of essential goods have created desperation and rises in illegal activities like smuggling, which often entails severe punishments. 

“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,” reports Ojea-Quintana. This has essentially exacerbated the pre-existing limits on freedoms, food shortages, and economic failures in the country. Most recently, conditions of “basic necessity shortages’’ have led to a mass “collective exit” of international diplomats, and no foreign aid workers are currently left in the DPRK. As of March 20th, 2021, the UN reports that its remaining employees in the DPRK have exited the country as well.   

In his report, Ojea-Quintana called upon neighbouring South Korean officials to respond to this humanitarian crisis and to properly implement its role in international peace, specifically to more effectively implement the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2016, which sets guidelines for the “advancement of human rights for current and former North Korean citizens in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

This initiative has largely been inactive since the ruling regime of South Korea’s Moon Jae-in has taken power, in hopes to improve ties with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Moon’s approach to avoiding friction with the DPRK, which focused on appeasing its relations with its neighbours instead of directly responding to these concerns, has been criticized by activists around the world for overlooking the grave human rights abuses. Moon’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-wha had previously explained that human rights issues are not the priority in the inter-Korean agenda. This was exemplified by the passing of a South Korean anti-leafleting law just last year, which criminalized the launching of balloons containing anti-regime information and resources into the DPRK. Human rights experts have explained that this compromise of free speech rights in exchange for peace could set a dangerous precedent for future diplomacy with the DPRK. Further, South Korea had declined to co-sponsor a resolution by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNCHR) to condemn the DPRK’s violation of human rights. Former Special Advisor of Foreign Affairs and National Security Moon Chung-in called upon Biden to reconsider its discussions of systematic and widespread abuses in the DPRK as this approach of criticism could break down negotiations.  

As the report by Ojea-Quintana further explains, conditions in DPRK are considerable concerns of UN Charter infringements, which Quintana believes the UN Security Council bears the responsibility of inaction and the prevention of further violation of rights. In response, he calls for the responsibility of intervention and investigation by the International Criminal Court against the current conditions in the DPRK. As global activists have contended, these long-ensuring humanitarian crimes in the DPRK have been overshadowed by the heightened fears of its nuclear program and recent weaponry threats. Most recently, a joint statement by national security officials from South Korea, Japan, and the United States, with its focus on DPRK’s ballistic missile programs, exemplified that the main concern is that international bodies are overly immersed with concerns of denuclearization. For example, on April 7th, U.S. Press Secretary Jen Psaki reiterated that “we have a clear objective as it relates to North Korea, which is denuclearizing the…Korean Peninsula.”

Due to the secrecy of the private and isolated nature of the regime, the detailed impacts of the pandemic may never be known in DPRK. In one of the world’s strictest COVID-19 quarantine measures, the lack of reliable information and transparency within DPRK grounds constitutes a limitation in drawing significant conclusions. DPRK officials deny the claims of human rights abuse allegations and continue to advise citizens of the necessity of such regulations that limit basic rights in the country. 

Much like UN analysts have reported, these changing conditions for DPRK amidst the pandemic pose serious concerns for the normalization of the government to increase its control over daily life to a vastly drastic extent, all under the guise of health precautions. The inaction by the international community could leave its citizens suffering in invisibility as the country continues to be isolated more than ever before. Thus it is evident that future negotiations with North Korea cannot be solely about stopping weapons and nuclear power development but also need to focus on pressuring the regime to take immediate and drastic steps to address the health, well-being, and rights of its people that have been ignored for too long. As Ojea-Quintana argues, “the urgency to stop violations of such a scale, gravity and nature cannot take a back seat to national interests or geopolitical interests.”