The world should send 60 million. COVID-19 vaccines for North Korea, says UN investigator
The world should send 60 million.  COVID-19 vaccines for North Korea, says UN investigator

The world should send 60 million. COVID-19 vaccines for North Korea, says UN investigator

Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in North Korea Tomas Ojea Quintana attends a press conference following his report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, 12 March 2018. REUTERS / Denis Balibouse

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SEOUL, February 23 (Reuters) – The international community should formulate a strategy to provide North Korea with at least 60 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to avert humanitarian catastrophe, an independent UN human rights investigator said on Wednesday.

The vaccines could be a way of persuading the country to ease shutdowns that have left some of its 26 million people on the brink of starvation, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, told a briefing in Seoul .

“It is imperative that the people of North Korea begin to be vaccinated … so that the government has no excuse for maintaining the border closure,” he said.

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North Korea is not known to have imported any COVID-19 vaccines, and COVAX’s global COVID-19 vaccine sharing program has reduced the number of doses assigned to the country.

Last year, North Korea rejected scheduled shipments of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, which was organized under COVAX due to concerns about side effects, a South Korean think tank said at the time.

Pyongyang also rejected an offer of 3 million COVID-19 vaccine doses of China’s Sinovac Biotech, UNICEF said last year.

Authorities in Pyongyang appeared to be suspicious of receiving only a partial amount of vaccines and then being under pressure to accept more, something that could be resolved by agreeing to give enough doses to the whole country, Ojea Quintana said.

The UN investigator said he had raised the prospect of delivering 60 million vaccines to North Korea during meetings with international diplomats in Seoul, but that such a proposal had not yet been formally submitted to Pyongyang and that a number of issues needed to be addressed, including payments and any sanctions.

North Korea has not reported any COVID-19 cases and has imposed strict antivirus measures, including border closures and domestic travel edges. For the first time since early 2020, it began allowing a few trains to cross the border from China last month.

“The most serious situation in North Korea is food,” Ojea Quintana said, adding that some of the most vulnerable populations appear to be at risk of starvation.

Although the North Korean government sees a legitimate public health reason for maintaining the restrictions, it has an obligation to balance it with people’s need for food, which is linked to their freedom of movement, he said.

Border and movement restrictions have been particularly damaging to North Koreans who depend on commercial activities along the border with China, and it has been exacerbated by the impact of sanctions, Ojea Quintana added.

He reiterated calls for sanctions against North Korea to be more flexible, to avoid causing humanitarian damage to civilians.

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Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing Simon Cameron-Moore

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