In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the authorities enforced even more severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of movement and expression. Significant parts of the population suffered from food shortages and inadequate health care. The government continued to refuse entry to the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, amid numerous reports of arbitrary detention and gender-based violence.
The government reported no cases of COVID-19 during the year. On 24 July, it ordered a lockdown of the city of Kaesong on the border with South Korea, after it suspected a man who had returned from South Korea of being infected with the virus. He eventually tested negative for COVID-19. The government ended the lockdown on 14 August.
Relations with South Korea deteriorated. The Inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong was closed on 30 January to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In June, authorities warned that they would destroy the office, while condemning the South Korean government for failing to stop North Korean activists living in South Korea from sending politically sensitive leaflets over the border using balloons and drones. On 16 June, the authorities demolished the office building.
On 22 January, the authorities closed all borders and imposed a total ban on the movement of people and goods in and out of the country, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Prior to this, North Koreans already needed to secure government approval to leave the country. Due to the reinforced border security measures, only 195 North Koreans resettled in South Korea between 1 January and 30 September, the lowest number since 2003 when records were first made available.
On 22 September, the military shot dead a South Korean civilian official floating on an object in North Korean waters after questioning him at a distance. Three days later, the government issued a public apology to the South Korean President but did not mention whether an investigation or judicial procedures had been initiated into the killing. Earlier that month, foreign media reported that the Ministry of Social Security had empowered border guards to shoot unauthorized people coming within 1km of the North Korean-Chinese border, as part of the stricter border security measures to prevent COVID-19 infections.
More than 70% of North Koreans who left the country and settled in South Korea since 2003 were women and girls. Some of these North Korean women told Amnesty International that sexual and other violence against women and girls was common in their home country, but the topic was taboo and people often blamed the victim. Frequently, the women remained silent about such abuses, even when continuing to suffer similar treatment after leaving North Korea.
Reports of North Korean women who were sexually abused by officials in South Korea after their arrival revealed the wider phenomenon of continuing violence faced by women during different stages of their journey. Women and girls were subjected to rape and other forms of gender-based violence by human traffickers who facilitated their passage out of the country. As North Korean women illegally entering China faced a high risk of being arrested and forcibly repatriated, human traffickers were able to coerce them into sex work or forced marriage. The UN reported instances where women were subjected to physical abuse, unnecessary and invasive body searches, or other forms of ill-treatment by North Korean authorities after being arrested in China, forcibly repatriated, and detained.
A lack of medical supplies, exacerbated by the imposition of UN sanctions since 2017, left the country ill-prepared for public health emergencies, including the COVID-19 pandemic. According to individuals who worked in North Korea’s health sector, the scarcity of resources prompted the emerging middle class to secure medicines or health services in the informal economy, or so-called “grey markets”. The resulting pay-for-care system for those who could afford it existed alongside the official system of nominally free medical care.1 The border closure and stricter security measures further interrupted humanitarian aid supplies, legal imports and smuggling of goods into the country, causing a shortage of medicines in the markets.
Many aid agencies temporarily withdrew their operations because of health and safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic. A number of UN agencies and NGOs were nonetheless able to obtain exemptions from UN sanctions and managed to bring materials including medicines and personal protective equipment into the country.
The UN estimated that half of the country’s schools and health facilities lacked access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene. It estimated that 10 million people were food insecure and in urgent need of food assistance. Nineteen per cent of children suffered from chronic malnutrition, which was also linked to diseases arising from unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation.
The border closures significantly reduced food imports, causing a surge in grey market food prices. This brought another challenge to a poverty-stricken population that depended on these markets for much of its food supply. Heavy rains and typhoons in August and September caused damage to infrastructure and farmland, including where food production was concentrated, increasing the risk of food shortages.
The authorities made no improvements in allowing information exchange between people inside and outside the country. All communications continued to be strictly controlled, and only a select few from the ruling elite were able to access the internet or international mobile phone services. The general population relied on imported mobile phones and data SIM cards available in the grey markets to reach people abroad. According to people from North Korea who spoke to Amnesty International, any communications on these phones were subject to heavy surveillance and signal jamming by the authorities. Individuals caught using them to communicate with people outside the country, especially concerning COVID-19, could be charged with crimes such as espionage, and faced the risk of arrest, detention and harsh punishment.
The government continued to deny the existence of four known political prison camps, where up to 120,000 people remained detained and subjected to torture, forced labour and other ill-treatment, and harsh conditions including inadequate food. Many of them had not been convicted of any internationally recognizable criminal offence and were arbitrarily detained solely because they were related to people who were deemed a threat to the state or for “guilt-by-association”. Others were detained for exercising their rights, such as the freedom to leave their own country.
At least six South Korean nationals were in custody. Three of them were missionaries serving life sentences and three were originally North Koreans who had moved to the South. The authorities denied their rights to access South Korean diplomats, lawyers of their choice, or their families.