In a press release yesterday (26 Feb), the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, urged North Korea and the international community to join forces to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak in the country.

“The outside world should be prepared to respond, and the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea should allow full and unimpeded access to medical experts and humanitarian actors, and relax restrictions on access to information,” said Mr Quintana. “Further isolation of the country is not the answer.”

The Special Rapporteur also expressed his support for the efforts taken by the authorities to prevent an outbreak, including strict controls on entry into the country and seeking assistance from UN agencies.

To date, no cases of COVID-19 have been officially confirmed in the country.

However, many North Koreans, in particularly those living in rural areas, do not fully enjoy the rights to health, water, and sanitation. Over 43 percent of the population is undernourished. Half of education and health facilities lack adequate water and sanitation facilities. Combined with a limited access to information, this makes them even more vulnerable to COVID-19, noted Mr Quintana.

The current threat from COVID-19 confirms that the human rights of North Koreans cannot be put on hold until political agreements are made, he added.

The Special Rapporteur reiterated his earlier calls to review the sanctions against North Korea and study their detrimental impacts on North Korea’s human rights situation. He stressed that humanitarian organizations in the country need to receive permission to import life-saving and seemingly innocuous supplies, such as water filters, hygiene kits, and funds for digging wells.

“The COVID-19 crisis, as severe as it is, is also an opportunity to initiate close cooperation between Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the international community towards common goals,” he concluded.

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