North Korea is facing “widespread food shortages and malnutrition” which have been “exacerbated” due to measures taken against the coronavirus pandemic, a UN expert said Tuesday.

Tomas Ojea Quintana, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), called for urgent government and international action to ensure food supplies.

“Lack of food had a devastating impact in the DPRK in the 1990s, and prospects of a further deepening of food shortages and widespread food insecurity are alarming,” he said in a statement. “The government must take swift action on this matter by prioritizing allocations of financial resources and allowing humanitarian aid to be delivered on the ground without restrictions.”

North Korea, which shares a long and porous border with China, claims to be totally free of the virus.

According to state-run media, strict containment measures including the shutting down of borders, and quarantining hundreds of people, were taken in an attempt to stop the virus from breaking out.

The virus, which emerged in China last December, has spread to at least 188 countries.

The UN statement said that border closure between North Korea and China since Jan. 21, 2020, has exacerbated the food crisis, devastating cross-border trade and sapping income from merchants.

“There have been reports of an increase of homeless people in large cities — including Kotjebi [street children], and medicine prices have reportedly skyrocketed,” the communique read. “An increasing number of families eat only twice a day, or eat only corn, and some are starving. Soldiers reportedly also suffer from food shortages.”

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