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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a plenary meeting of the Workers’ Party in Pyongyang, North Korea, August 19, 2020.  © 2020 Korea News Service via AP

About 60 North Koreans in China were forcibly returned to North Korea in April, putting them at high risk of arbitrary detention, torture or degrading treatment, sexual violence, forced labor, and execution. China's actions were especially cruel given that North Korea, since the COVID-19 pandemic, has become more repressive and brutal than ever.

And with Russia's recent decision to use its veto to shut down the United Nations Security Council's Panel of Experts, which for more than a decade monitored North Korean sanctions violations, the world's ability to look inside the reclusive state has been drastically curtailed.

Recently I interviewed Mr. Kim, who fled North Korea with his family in May 2023, one of only a few people who have managed to leave the country since 2020. "I decided to escape because the situation in North Korea became more serious during the pandemic," he said. "The control and exploitation made me realize that this was no place for me or my family. With the severe control, pressure, and food shortages, my fear grew, and I realized that there was no hope for my family in this country." He asked me not to use his full name for the safety of his relatives and contacts.

Kim's views are consistent with research I have conducted since 2020 for Human Rights Watch. We documented North Korea's persistent drive to control its population through fear. Its overbroad, excessive, and unnecessary quarantines and restrictions on freedom of movement and trade have sealed the country and worsened an already grave humanitarian and human rights crisis following the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the start of the pandemic in 2020, the North Korean government built new and expanded fences and guard posts at its northern border with China and Russia and strictly enforced rules, including a standing order for border guards to "shoot on sight" any person or animal approaching the border without permission. The new restrictions also exacerbated the impact of existing U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed in 2016 and 2017, which restricted most exports and some imports, making it even more difficult for many ordinary North Koreans to get enough resources to live, or even to have enough to eat.

The government's new measures have severely affected access to food and goods critical to basic rights, such as medicine, medical supplies, soap, toothpaste, clothes, shoes, and batteries, which previously entered the country via formal or informal trade routes from China.

"As food became scarce and harder to come by, violent crime became more common," Kim said. "I heard of a person entering the home of an older person living alone and stabbing the person to death while trying to steal food or money, or about somebody stealing food from a passing cyclist."

The North Korean government's expanded internal security at its northern border has made almost all unsanctioned domestic and international travel impossible, whether for informal commercial activities or to escape the country. The government also further tightened restrictions on communication with the outside world and access to information, while intensifying other ideological controls to prevent unrest.

Even before the pandemic, North Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. The government has long struggled to guarantee the right to food, including adequate childhood nutrition, and access to medicine, while prioritizing the development of nuclear weapons and missile programs over social services, diverting billions of dollars of revenues that could have been spent on public services and infrastructure.

Despite this grave and worsening situation, however, international attention to North Korea has waned in recent years, and the U.N. Security Council has been deadlocked on North Korea's human rights record for a decade. On March 28, Russia vetoed the renewal of the mandate of the Security Council's Panel of Experts, which is like drawing the shades on North Korea sanctions violations.

Some concerned governments, including South Korea, the United States, and Japan, are now weighing options in response, including the possibility of the U.N. General Assembly mandating a team of experts to improve and expand monitoring of North Korea.

This is a good approach. South Korea and other governments should urgently present a U.N. General Assembly resolution that creates a new monitoring and reporting body on North Korea, integrating human rights and humanitarian issues with efforts to address the threats to peace and security posed by the government's nuclear and ballistic weapons programs. Systemic abuses and repression are what allow North Korea's weapons program to exist in the first place, and it no longer makes sense to address one issue separately from the other. The General Assembly in recent years has agreed to create other mechanisms to address complicated crises, such as for Syria. It can do so now with North Korea.

Ignoring North Korea's abuses and threats, however, is not a viable option.

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