North Korea's prolonged isolation is deepening its rights crisis, a UN expert said Monday, stressing the need for diplomatic and UN engagement with the impoverished, nuclear-armed state.
With the world's attention on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it is also vital to avoid unchecked escalation in North Korea, said Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on the rights situation in the country.
"The situation on the Korean peninsula could rapidly and dangerously escalate," he told reporters in Geneva.
"It is critical for all parties involved to try to seek diplomacy."
Quintana pointed out that the rigid coronavirus blockade the totalitarian country had imposed on itself since early 2020 to tackle the pandemic had deepened its already dire rights crisis.
The North Korean government "is using the Covid-19 pandemic to increase control on the population," he said.
"Leaving North Korea in isolation and maintaining the status quo offers no solutions to help address the dire human rights situation there."
Quintana warned that the situation could only get worse with a range of new draconian laws and without international observers or international personnel on the ground.
He pointed for instance to "shoot-on-sight orders at the borders and an 'anti-reactionary thought' law that includes the death penalty for accessing information from abroad".
Quintana, whose six-year term expires at the end of July, said the already dire rights situation in the country had deteriorated further over that time.
Chronic food insecurity has long been a problem in the impoverished nation, but it has likely worsened with the collapse of trade following the closure of the country's borders, he said.
Quintana cautioned in a statement that the prolonged measures in response to Covid "may no longer pass the tests of necessity and proportionality, given the extent of their impact on access to food, healthcare and livelihoods."
In his latest report to the UN Human Rights Council, the expert warned that more than 41 percent of the North Korean population -- more than 10 million people -- were food insecure.
Less than a third of children under the age of two were meanwhile receiving even the minimum acceptable diet, with malnutrition remaining the leading cause of child mortality, the report said.
"Segments of the population, especially vulnerable populations, may be facing hunger and starvation," Quintana warned.
The UN expert called for countries to provide North Korea with millions of doses of Covid vaccines to help it loosen its lockdown measures.
The additional restrictions come on top of long-existing harsh repression in North Korea.
A landmark 2014 report by a UN Commission of Inquiry accused North Korea of "systematic, widespread and gross" human rights abuses, estimating it was holding up to 120,000 people in secret camps.
Quintana said he did not have information about the current number of prisoners, but stressed they were "fundamental to the control of the population."
Rights abuses in the country were systemic and many "entail crimes against humanity," he said.
"Concrete accountability processes are urgently needed, either at the national or international level," he said.
Pyongyang is under multiple sets of international sanctions over its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
Quintana again called for such restrictions to be eased to protect the country's most vulnerable in the face of a severe food shortage.