In a photo taken on September 11, 2019, a North Korean student poses for photos on a viewing platform near the summit of Mount Paektu, near Samjiyon. Mount Paektu has long been considered the spiritual birthplace of the Korean nation and is a place of pilgrimage for tens of thousands of North Koreans every year, who are trained from birth to revere their leaders.
Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images
By EDITH M. LEDERER / AP
October 23, 2019

(UNITED NATIONS) — Food insecurity in North Korea “is at an alarming level,” with nearly half the population — 11 million people — undernourished, the U.N. independent investigator on human rights in the country said Tuesday.

Tomas Ojea Quintana told the General Assembly’s human rights committee that 140,000 children are estimated to be suffering from “undernutrition,” including 30,000 who “face an increased risk of death.” Quintana said the government, which has primary responsibility for ensuring access to food, “is violating its human rights obligations due to its failing economic and agricultural policies.”

In addition, he said, “climate conditions, infertile land, natural disasters and the negative impact of sanctions have contributed to further food insecurity.”

More broadly, Quintana said he has seen no improvement in North Korea’s human rights situation during his three years as special rapporteur.

“The country’s economic resources are being diverted away from the essential needs of the people,” he said. “Pervasive discrimination in the public distribution system means that ordinary citizens, especially farmers and people in rural areas, have not been receiving any rations.”

An employee harvests grain crops at the Koh Chang cooperative farm near Pyongyang. The farm has over 1.500 employees; it supplies food for the Chollima Steel Complex, one of North Korea's largest steel plants, as well as Pyongyang's grocery stores.
Yevgeny Agoshkov—TASS/Getty Images

Quintana said collective farming and the failure to allow farmers to benefit from individual plots of land is further exacerbating food insecurity.

“At the same time, the government has failed to put in place conditions where people can securely engage in trade and exchange in marketplaces without facing criminalization, extortion and other forms of abuse,” he said. Nonetheless, he added, the vast majority of North Koreans “are now engaged in such market activity for their survival.”

Ironically, he said, the government’s failure to regulate nascent market activity is creating increasing inequality based on wealth, “where only those with money have access to basic rights such as education, health care, freedom of movement and adequate housing.”

Read more: President Trump’s Ongoing Failure With North Korea Talks

Quintana said severe restrictions on basic freedoms continue to be widespread, including surveillance and close monitoring of civilians. “North Korean people continue to live in the entrenched fear of being sent to a political prison camp,” called a kwanliso, he said.

“If you are considered to be a spy of the hostile countries or a traitor, when in reality you are simply exercising your basic human rights, you can be suddenly taken by agents of the Ministry of State Security to a kwanliso and never be seen again,” Quintana said. “Suspects’ families are never informed of the decisions or of the whereabouts of their relatives.”

On the issue of North Koreans who have fled to China, Quintana said in the past six months he has received information from family members living in South Korea of an increasing number of these escapees being detained in China.

A worker at the Songdowon General Foodstuff Factory. The factory launched 23 new items, from biscuits and soy-bean candies to beer and soju drinks, to mark its 10th birthday. The factory is regarded as the most technologically advanced enterprise in the country.
Yevgeny Agoshkov—TASS/Getty images

He said any North Korean who escapes should not be forcibly returned because there are substantial grounds they would be tortured or subjected to other human rights violations.

“I appreciate the government of China’s increased engagement with me on this concern, and I hope that this will lead to greater compliance with international standards,” he said.

Quintana said North Korea has accepted 132 recommendations from other U.N. member states, including one “to grant immediate, free and unimpeded access to international humanitarian organizations to provide assistance to the most vulnerable groups, including prisoners.” He said this could lead to the first international access to places of detention, “and could therefore be an opportunity to improve prison conditions.”

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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