'Devastating impact': Fears of 'widespread food shortages' in one country during lockdown

A United Nations human rights expert has expressed alarm at “widespread food shortages and malnutrition” in North Korea, made worse by a nearly five-month border closure with China and strict COVID-19 quarantine measures.

Tomas Ojea Quintana, UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, urged the UN Security Council on Tuesday (local time) 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 three million people, does not report COVID-19 cases to the World Health Organisation.

Children wearing face masks after schools in Pyongyang opened again last week. Source: Getty Images

The pandemic has brought “drastic economic hardship” to North Korea, Ojea Quintana said, with a 90 per cent 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 the average meal intake of families had been significantly reduced.

“An increasing number of families eat only twice a day, or eat only corn, and some are starving,” he said in a statement.

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.

A man's temperature is checked on arrival at Pyongyang University of Medicine. Source: Getty Images

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

More than 10 million people, or 40 per cent 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.

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