DPRK

COVID outbreak in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (17 May 2022)

FROM Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Liz Throssell
LOCATION Geneva

We are deeply concerned about the likely human rights impact of the first officially reported outbreak of COVID-19 in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and the subsequent lockdown imposed by the authorities.

State-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that, as of 16 May, 56 people, including at least six children, had died of COVID-19 and that 663,910 people were undergoing medical treatment due to fever.

In the absence of any vaccination rollout, the pandemic's reported spread may have a devastating impact on the human rights situation in the country. The DPRK has a very limited healthcare infrastructure to cope with such a crisis, as it lacks testing capacity, essential medicines, and equipment.

The DPRK closed its borders in January 2020 as the pandemic first began spreading worldwide and limited internal freedom of movement which resulted in restricted access to food, medicines, and healthcare. There has also been an increase in the repression of civil and political rights during this period, which has included a policy authorizing use of lethal force against people attempting to leave or enter the country, and more severe penalties for accessing independent information from outside the DPRK.

The latest restrictions - which include putting people under stricter isolation and imposing further travel restrictions - will have dire consequences for those already struggling to meet their basic needs - including getting enough food to eat. Children, lactating mothers, older people, the homeless and those living in more isolated rural and border areas are especially vulnerable. Those in detention are also particularly exposed to the risk of infection due to the high concentrations of people in confined spaces and limited access to hygiene and healthcare. Malnutrition was already widespread in places of detention before the onset of COVID-19.

We urge the DPRK authorities to ensure that all measures adopted to tackle the pandemic are necessary, proportionate, non-discriminatory, time-bound, and strictly in line with international human rights law. We call on the authorities to assess the impact of any measures on vulnerable populations, taking into account experience elsewhere in effectively addressing the pandemic, and to mitigate any adverse impact through sound public policy measures and the application of sufficient State resources.

Responding adequately to COVID-19 calls for solidarity and cooperation between Governments and the wider international community. The High Commissioner has previously urged the international community to relax sanctions to enable urgent humanitarian and COVID-related assistance. We encourage the DPRK, as a matter of urgency, to discuss with the United Nations the opening of channels for humanitarian support, including medicines, vaccines, equipment, and other life-saving support. We also urge the authorities to facilitate the return of UN and other international staff to the DPRK to assist in the provision of support, including to vulnerable populations and those living in rural and border areas.