Category: Humanitarian Aid and Relief

UN human rights chief warns sanctions “impeding” North Korea’s COVID-19 efforts

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Sanctions have “impeded” the ability of … North Korea to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the UN’s top human rights official said on Tuesday.

North Korea is subject to a wide range of sanctions — including a ban on metal goods that blocks countries from sending certain medical equipment to the DPRK without special permission from the UN — as punishment for its nuclear weapons program.

“It is vital to avoid the collapse of any country’s medical system — given the explosive impact that will have on death, suffering, and wider contagion,” said Bachelet, the former president of Chile.

“At this crucial time, both for global public health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended,” she said. “In a context of global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us.” “Humanitarian exemptions to sanctions measures should be given broad and practical effect, with prompt, flexible authorization for essential medical equipment and supplies,” she added.

North Korea is known to have one of the world’s worst-prepared public health systems for dealing with the rapid spread of a contagious virus. One study last year said North Korea ranks last among all nations in its ability to deal with an infectious disease outbreak.

Humanitarian workers with experience in the country have told NK News that the North has a severe shortage of many basic medical supplies, including gloves and masks, that are essential during a pandemic. And even if the North had all of the equipment it needed, many medical facilities in the country still lack reliable sources of water, electricity, and heat.

On Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House that he had offered to help the DPRK fend off the coronavirus, despite the icy relationship between the two countries. It remains unclear if Pyongyang said yes to the offer of help — or what type of assistance the Trump administration planned to give.

[NK News]

COVID-19 prevention equipment to be delivered to North Korea

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The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) expects to see Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) shipped to North Korea this week by land from China, the UN agency told journalists, amid ongoing efforts by international organizations to help North Korea in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“We expect to receive a shipment of face shields, goggles, masks, gowns, coveralls and gloves (PPE equipment) this week by land from China,” the UN agency said.

“Additional masks, gloves, and thermometers will be included in this delivery,” it added. “This is part of our ongoing work with the World Health Organization and other international organizations, and the government to stop transmission of COVID-19, and to keep children and their families safe.”

[NK News]

Russia delivers Coronavirus testkits to North Korea

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The Russian government was able to get diagnostic test kits to North Korea via a flight to Pyongyang earlier this week after evacuating foreign diplomats and other travelers. This news came via a worker with an American nongovernmental organization who told U.S. News on the condition of anonymity, due to the sensitive nature of the person’s work.

“If they get the tests to run on their machines, we should start to hear about confirmed cases of COVID-19 in a few days,” says the worker, who has extensive experience in North Korea.

The country, under widespread lockdown in response to the global pandemic, has become one of the most troubling blind spots in the international response to the spread of the coronavirus. Global health officials have virtually no information about how the country has been affected by the virus that has roiled neighboring China and South Korea.

“Global health security is only as good as the weakest link,” says Kee Park, director of the North Korea Program at the Korean American Medical Association and a lecturer on global health and social medicine at Harvard University.

North Korea has not acknowledged any confirmed cases of the coronavirus within its borders, while neighboring South Korea documents more than 7,000 cases and China reports almost 5,000 deaths as a result.

Leader Kim Jong Un has attempted to demonstrate that his country is taking the spread of the virus seriously, including allowing the release of photos that show military service members wearing preventative medical masks. North Korea has also launched two rounds of short-range missiles in recent weeks, an effort analysts say is designed to show it remains a potent threat despite the health crisis.

“The main priority really is to make sure DPRK is well equipped to avoid any spread of the disease, the virus,” Fabio Forgione, Doctors Without Borders‘ head of mission for DPRK – an acronym for North Korea’s official name – said in a recent interview. “At the moment, our feeling is they’re really trying to work on prevention. They have in place all the right strategies to try to tackle and prevent the spread of the virus.”

The Russian tests will provide critical information at a time international health workers have struggled to better understand the situation in North Korea.

[US News World Report]

COVID-19 in North Korea

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According to Daily NK, the COVID-19 virus killed 180 North Korean soldiers in January and February and has sent another 3,700 into quarantine. And according to South Korea’s government-backed Yonhap News Agency, North Korea quarantined almost 10,000 people over coronavirus fears but released nearly 4,000 because they didn’t present symptoms.

However the North Korean government line hasn’t changed. “The infectious disease did not flow into our country yet,” North Korea’s government-controlled Rodong Sinmun newspaper said on Monday, according to Newsweek.

The Daily NK attributed its information to a medical-corps report from within the North Korean military. Hospitals serving different parts of the army were asked to provide data about the number of soldiers in their care who died of high fevers triggered by pneumonia, tuberculosis, asthma, and colds, as well as those who were in quarantine.

The report itself caused a furor in the military’s leadership, according to a Daily NK source, who said that officials have ordered military hospitals to thoroughly sanitize the areas where quarantined soldiers are being housed. Soldiers with compromised immune systems or those who have a history of poor health are also being closely monitored, the source said. Military-unit leaders can also expect to be punished if the proper protocol directed at controlling the spread of the coronavirus is not followed, the Daily NK said.

Officials are looking into increasing the soldiers’ supply of food so their bodies are better equipped to resist COVID-19, the Daily NK‘s source said, adding that people “in charge of the military’s logistics operations are stressing that soldiers are supplied at least 800 grams worth of food per day. They also are emphasizing that soldiers eat three meals of pureed soybean soup per day, instead of the usual one per day.”

A warning was also issued in Rodong Sinmun that deemed it “absolutely unacceptable” for North Korean citizens to interfere with the government’s steps to halt the coronavirus. That includes those who object to wearing face masks, according to Newsweek.

UN investigator warns against isolating North Korea as threat of COVID-19 looms

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A U.N. investigator Monday warned of serious consequences if COVID-19 gains a foothold in North Korea. The U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said the lack of freedoms and wide-range abuses in the tightly controlled, highly secretive society run counter to the transparency needed to combat the coronavirus epidemic.

Ojea Quintana acknowledges the government’s extensive efforts in preventing an outbreak of this virus inside the North. He warns a widespread infection in North Korea would be devastating for the people as many are malnourished, suffering from stunted growth and are vulnerable to getting sick.  

The U.N. official is calling on North Korea to allow full and unimpeded access to medical experts and aid workers and urges the government not to restrict access to vital information. The government in Pyongyang has not publicly disclosed any cases of COVID-19.

Regarding the economic sanctions that the United States and other countries have imposed on North Korea because of its nuclear weapons program, Ojea Quintana said because sanctions create economic hardships for the people and given the coronavirus crisis, they should be reviewed.

The U.N. rapporteur describes the overall human rights situation in North Korea as abysmal.  “Basic freedoms continue to be limited, control and surveillance are pervasive, and the population fears arbitrary arrest and mistreatment, including detention in political prison camps…A recent account refers to frequent deaths of prisoners due to hard labor, lack of food, contagious diseases and overcrowding,” he said.  

Ojea Quintana said women are the most abused members of this repressive society. He said women are the primary caretakers of the household and are under pressure to provide money and labor to the government. He said women are vulnerable to threats, imprisonment and sexual abuse from local state officials. Additionally, he said they have no political power or recourse to justice.

[VoA]

Foreign diplomats to be evacuated from North Korea as country steps up efforts to prevent virus outbreak

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A plan is in the works to evacuate quarantined foreign diplomats from North Korea, a source inside the country has revealed. “I would expect around 60 people to be on the flight,” a source said.

The German Embassy, French Cooperation Office, and Swiss Development Cooperation will close operations in the capital Pyongyang completely, said the source, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, given the extreme sensitivity of the current situation. Other countries with diplomatic missions in North Korea plan to scale down operations, the source added.

CNN previously reported foreign diplomats have been kept in complete isolation since early February, as the outbreak extended beyond mainland China. The exact number of foreign diplomats stationed inside North Korea is unknown, but is estimated to be just a few hundred. Diplomatic staff are not allowed to leave their compounds. All flights in and out of the country have also been suspended.

On Wednesday, North Korean state-run media reported that more than 380 foreign nationals had been placed in isolation. Individuals who had recently returned from trips overseas, as well as those who show abnormal symptoms are also under observation, according to the report.

North Korea has not confirmed a single case of the virus inside its borders, but global health experts have warned the country is highly susceptible to an outbreak given its close proximity to China and limited medical capabilities. Every other country in East Asia has confirmed numerous cases.

The apparent ramping up of efforts to contain the virus comes as neighboring South Korea reported 256 more confirmed cases of the virus on Friday morning, bringing the national total to 2,022, according to the South Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

[CNN]

Inside London’s community of North Korean defectors

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In the southwest London suburb of New Malden, it’s common to see Korean signage across the high street’s low-rise row of shopfronts, where about a third of its total population is Korean.

It’s also home to most of the UK’s North Korean defectors, which, at over 600 people, is the largest North Korean community in Europe. Arriving as refugees, they have escaped a country that the UN has repeatedly condemned for its corruption, human rights abuses and “appalling” levels of hunger. 

New Malden’s North Korean community is fairly recent; in 2007, there were only 20 defectors living in the area. Drawn by the Korean amenities already established by their southern neighbors, North Koreans have built a new life away from Kim Jong-un’s oppressive regime while still honouring the cultural traditions they left behind. It’s this delicate balance of renewal and remembrance that photographer Catherine Hyland sought out when she began working with New Malden’s North Koreans around three years ago. She began attending church services and K-pop competitions, spending over a year getting to know the community before she took a single photograph. 

Hyland was aware that these subjects deserved an especially sensitive approach. “Even after you defect, the psychological and cultural adjustment can be hard due to the extreme conditions people are used to,” she says. 

Named The Traces Left Behind, her multi-part series allows her subjects to express themselves through their own visual and cultural language. “The disparity between the media [portrayal of the community] and reality is vast,” Hyland points out. “We hope the project could be a platform for this community to share their stories on their own terms.”

She has recently finished the project’s first chapter, a short film and photo series in collaboration with the Korean Senior Citizen Society’s dance group and choir. Rather than a straightforward documentary-style observation, Hyland created a set inspired by the bright, pastel aesthetic specific to North Korea, inviting the group to dance, sing and share their story with her.

Despite the color and joy evident in her work, Hyland’s interviews touch on some painful moments. Lee-Sook Sung, a 77-year-old who participates in the dance troupe, was an early settler in the UK, having arrived in 2009. She told Hyland that three of her sons starved to death in North Korea before she escaped to China with her husband and three remaining children. 

Having lost her eyesight and become unable to read, she learns the choir songs with the help of her husband. Despite these hardships, she says the community helps her remain young, as does the healthcare and quality of life she has found in New Malden. “If I had still been in North Korea, by this age I wouldn’t be able to do anything,” she says. “But I have come to such a joyful and wonderful world that I am dancing at this age.”

[The Independent]

North Korean refugee arrives in U.S.

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A North Korean male in his 50s or older arrived in the United States as a refugee this week, U.S. government data showed Friday.

He is the second North Korean refugee to resettle in the U.S. this year. In January, a male aged in the 14-20 range was placed in Richmond, Virginia, according to data from the State Department’s bureau of population, refugees and migration.

The new arrival was reported Thursday as a male aged in the 51-64 range. He now lives in Chicago, Illinois.

No North Korean refugees were admitted in 2018.

-The first North Korean refugees arrived in 2006, with their number peaking at 38 in 2008.
-From 2009 to 2016, the number of arrivals ranged between 14 and 23.
-In 2017, the figure dropped sharply to one, before increasing slightly to six in 2018.

[Yonhap]

Fifteen repatriated North Korean refugees quarantined for coronavirus with tuberculosis patients

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Authorities in North Korea have quarantined a group of 15 refugees that were captured in China and repatriated with the help of Chinese police, placing them in a facility meant to isolate patients with open cases of tuberculosis, Radio Free Asia has learned.

“Yesterday an acquaintance of mine who works in the medical industry told me that some North Korean refugees who were sent back from China last month were put in isolation at a tuberculosis hospital,” a resident of North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service.

The source said the 15 repatriated North Koreans, originally part of a group of about 20, had crossed the border into China from somewhere in North Hamgyong’s Musan county in early January. According to the source the 15 were not taken first to a detention center in China, but “were sent back to North Korea in strict secrecy.”

“Sopungsan tuberculosis hospital is famous because patients are sent there when they have the most dangerous types of open-case tuberculosis [including the drug-resistant Super-TB],” said the source. “It’s like the authorities don’t even care if these people become infected with tuberculosis,” the source said.

A second source added, “Seopungsan tuberculosis hospital is where terminal TB patients go to die. They are put there to prevent the spread of the highly-contagious tuberculosis bacteria.”

[Radio Free Asia]

Why no coronavirus cases reported in North Korea?

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It’s now about two months since a deadly novel coronavirus was found in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and nearly every country and territory in East Asia has confirmed a case. But not North Korea.

Every country and territory within a 1,500-mile radius of North Korea, except for sparsely populated Mongolia, has confirmed a case. It’s unclear how North Korea has been able to avoid the virus. Pyongyang has either been very lucky, isn’t saying something or is reaping one of the few benefits of being a so-called “hermit nation.”

Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University who previously served as the head of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), said it’s very possible someone inside North Korea — a country of 25 million people — has been infected. Nam suspects a Chinese patient could have infected someone from North Korea across their shared border. “We know that the Chinese regions close to the North Korean border, such as Dandong and Shenyang, have confirmed patients. About 90% of North Korean trade is with China and we know so many people, trucks and trains passed through the border between the two nations before North Korea installed recent regulations” to stop the virus from getting into the country, Nam told CNN.

Despite not publicly acknowledging any confirmed or even suspected cases, North Korea has been uncharacteristically transparent regarding its efforts to combat the virus. It appears the country is taking the epidemic very seriously, according to reports in state-run news service KCNA. North Korea has closed its borders to all foreign tourists, most of whom are Chinese, as a precautionary measure. On January 30, authorities declared a “state emergency,” and that anti-epidemic headquarters were being established around the country, and North Korean health officials had set up a “nationwide test sample transport system” and had the ability to promptly diagnose suspicious cases. 

Doctors who have defected in recent years often speak of poor working conditions and shortages of everything from medicine to basic healthcare supplies. Choi Jung-hun, a former physician in North Korea who fled the country in 2011, said when he was helping to combat a measles outbreak in 2006 to 2007, North Korea did not have the resources to operate round-the-clock quarantine and isolation facilities. “The problem in North Korea is that manuals [for doctors] are not followed,” Choi said.

Jean Lee, who previously worked for The Associated Press and opened the newswire’s bureau in Pyongyang, said the virus gives Pyongyang a new excuse to further tighten its borders and justify the draconian social restrictions most North Korean people live under. The majority of North Koreans also do not enjoy freedom of movement and are required to receive government permission to travel to other provinces. Very few are permitted to travel abroad. 

Choi, the doctor who defected, also said, “North Korea has the best control system in the world. North Korea probably is best at limiting social contacts and regional traveling because they’ve been practicing that for 70 years.”

[CNN]