North Korea accused of using virus to crack down on rights

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Eight mainly Western nations accused North Korea on Friday of using the pandemic “to crack down further on the human rights of its own people,” pointing to reports of an uptick in executions related to the coronavirus and strict controls on movements in and around the capital.

Their statement was read virtually after the U.N. Security Council discussed North Korea’s human rights situation behind closed doors. Germany had sought an open meeting but Russia and China, both neighbors of North Korea, objected. Diplomats said the Germans couldn’t muster the nine “yes” votes needed for an open meeting of the 15-member council.

Seven council members — Germany, Belgium, Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, United Kingdom and United States — joined by Japan said in the statement that North Korea was putting nuclear power and military might over its people.

The government’s decision “to prioritize its weapons programs over the needs of its people and their isolation from the international community, is inevitably worsening the impacts of the pandemic on the North Korean population,” they said.

North Korea sealed its border with China, its biggest trading partner and aid benefactor, as the coronavirus started spreading in January. Kim Jong Un’s government maintains it hasn’t found a single coronavirus case on its soil, a claim disputed by outside experts.

The country’s closure, along with a series of natural disasters over the summer, dealt a heavy blow to the North Korean economy, which has been under punishing U.S.-led sanctions. A major virus outbreak could have dire consequences because its health care system remains crippled and suffers from a chronic lack of medical supplies.

South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers in late November that Kim had ordered at least two people executed, banned fishing and salt production at sea to prevent seawater from being infected with the virus, and locked down Pyongyang as part of frantic efforts to guard against the coronavirus and its economic damage.

According to a lawmaker, a high-profile money changer in Pyongyang was executed in October after being held responsible for a falling exchange rate and a key official was executed in August for violating government regulations restricting goods brought from abroad.

The statement by the eight nations pointed to “the serious threat posed to international peace and security” by North Korea’s “longstanding, systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights.” It cited the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the country, which said North Korea commits crimes against humanity and the gravity and scale of its violations “reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

North Korea has repeatedly rejected accusations of human rights abuses. It blames U.N. sanctions for the country’s dire humanitarian situation. The country has been under U.N. sanctions since 2006 over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

Issuing their statement a day after International Human Rights Day, the eight nations urged North Korea “to end its human rights violations, engage credibly with the international community on its human rights record” and allow U.N. human rights experts to have free and unhindered access to the country.

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