North Korea got darker during Covid-19 crisis, says rights defender

By Andres Sanchez

Seoul, Mar 12 (efe-epa).- Spanish researcher Lina Yoon, who has been secretly documenting human rights violations in North Korea for around five years, has expressed concern over how the regime took advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to strengthen further its grip over the country.

“North Korea is already a black hole, but now it is even darker. Never in the last 20 years has it been as dark,” Yoon told EFE, speaking over the phone from Madrid.

She said the isolation-induced by the Covid-19 made it even more difficult to know the food situation in the reclusive nation or the abuses committed by the regime.

Faced with a more informational blackout that greatly complicates her work, Yoon has decided to make her profile public as a researcher for the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Also, taking advantage of the fact that a new report on North Korea was being presented to the UN Commission on Human Rights with an eye on the promulgation of a new resolution at the end of the month, Yoon seeks to highlight HRW’s great concern in this regard.

Since joining HRW in 2014, her name was kept hidden in many published articles, as well as in the two comprehensive and alarming reports on the daily sexual abuse of North Koreans (2018) and the brutal preventive detention system in the Asian country (2020).

“I’ve kept this ‘non-public’ profile primarily to protect people I’ve been in touch with,” she said.

She has spoken to deserters, North Korean smugglers entering and leaving the country, diplomats, humanitarian workers, and anyone with access to North Korea or connections within the world’s most hermetic state.

However, according to Yoon, all of that changed with the tightening of sanctions, which strengthened Chinese border security, and the pandemic, which has led to the closure of all borders in North Korea in the face of the regime’s fear that the coronavirus will hit the impoverished country.

The year 2020, when Pyongyang authorized the military to fire at anyone approaching the border, recorded the least number of deserters arriving in South Korea in more than two decades.

In turn, the extreme measures at the border led to imports from China become almost non-existent in the last quarter of the year.

“There has been virtually no food or medicine coming in since October,” said the researcher.

She expressed “great concern” about the country’s food security following typhoons that destroyed crops in the summer and the regime’s refusal to receive humanitarian aid from abroad over Covid-19 fears.

The border closure has also left the headquarters of embassies, nonprofits, and UN agencies virtually deserted in North Korea.

Yoon also said the toward the end of 2020, Pyongyang approved a new law for stricter control over the exchange of information with the outside.

Usually, North Korean authorities conduct frequent raids to

confiscate DVDs, SD cards, or USBs with foreign media or Chinese phones that could be used to make calls abroad.

“However, the new law persecutes people for possession of electronic devices and other material that are not registered with the government,” she said.

“The measures activated by (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un affect the dissemination of information, the distribution of food and any material and the closure of borders.”

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