UN Official: North Koreans Are Hungry, Desperate

Militarization, economic situation add to the toll, Security Council hears
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 17, 2023 6:30 PM CDT
UN Official Describes Toll of North Korea's Repression
Volker Turk, UN human rights chief, speaks via video call Thursday at UN headquarters.   (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

North Korea is increasing its repression of human rights, and people are becoming more desperate and reportedly starving in parts of the country as the economic situation worsens, the United Nations rights chief said Thursday. Volker Türk told the first open meeting of the UN Security Council since 2017 on North Korean human rights that in the past the nation's people have endured periods of severe economic difficulty and repression, but "currently they appear to be suffering both." He added, "According to our information, people are becoming increasingly desperate as informal markets and other coping mechanisms are dismantled, while their fear of state surveillance, arrest, interrogation and detention has increased."

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un closed the borders of the northeast Asian nation to contain COVID-19. But as the pandemic has waned, Türk said the government's restrictions have grown even more extensive, with guards authorized to shoot any unauthorized person approaching the border and with almost all foreigners, including UN staff, still barred from the country. As examples of the increasing repression of human rights, he said, anyone found viewing "reactionary ideology and culture"—which means information from abroad, especially from South Korea—may now face five to 15 years in prison. And those who distribute such material face life imprisonment or even the death penalty, he said.

On the economic front, Türk said, the government has largely shut down markets and other private means of generating income and increasingly criminalized such activity, per the AP. "This sharply constrains people's ability to provide for themselves and their families," he said. "Given the limits of state-run economic institutions, many people appear to be facing extreme hunger as well as acute shortages of medication." Türk said many human rights violations stem directly from, or support, the militarization of the country—such as forced labor, including making schoolchildren collect harvests.

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Elizabeth Salmón, the UN special investigator on human rights in North Korea, echoed Türk: "Some people are starving. Others have died due to a combination of malnutrition, diseases, and lack of access to health care." The US and North Korea, which fought during the 1950-53 Korean War, are still technically at war since that conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. Salmón said the frozen conflict is being used to justify the continued militarization. North Korea on Tuesday denounced US plans for the council meeting as "despicable," saying it was only aimed at achieving Washington's geopolitical ambitions.

(More North Korea stories.)

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