When the COVID-19 outbreak began in China, UN Human Rights immediately saw the potential dangers for neighbouring Democratic People's Republic of Korea (more commonly known as North Korea, hereafter "DPRK").
Although, at the time of writing, the DPRK had not officially recorded any cases of COVID-19, UN Human Rights holds grave concerns for the human rights consequences that the virus – and measures taken to prevent its spread - will bring to a population which is already suffering.
Signe Poulsen is the Representative for UN Human Rights in Seoul, in the Republic of Korea. From Seoul, the UN Human Rights team is monitoring the situation for people inside the DPRK.
How has COVID-19 affected your work?
In late February, when the number of infections in the Republic of Korea (ROK) was rapidly increasing, there was not much information about how to respond. As a precautionary measure, our staff who had possibly been exposed in locations where the virus had spread, started working from home. Later, we extended this to most of the team, in line with the ROK Government's guidelines on physical distancing. The Seoul office was the first in UN Human Rights to begin working remotely.
Since January, we have worked closely with people from the DPRK living outside of the country and with civil society organisations, particularly those with contacts inside the country, to gather up-to-date information. Individuals and organisations working on human rights did not have access to the DPRK even before the pandemic, so they are skilled at working in this way. Working remotely is also something that the Seoul office has always been required to do due to a lack of access to the DPRK, so we were well-placed to do so even when the movement restrictions were put in place. We contact our partners by phone on a weekly basis, and we also monitor information in the DPRK state media, and in international media.
At the same time, we have adjusted our other activities. Staff continue to work from home, and schools remain closed, while the Government is continuing measures to contain the spread of COVID-19.