Dozens of prisoners starved to death in North Korean jails in July
Thirty-five victims registered in a prison north of Pyongyang. Family members were unable to deliver extra food rations due to restrictions imposed to counter Covid-19. Dozens of people are still suffering from severe malnutrition. With the pandemic, visits by relatives have gone from monthly back to quarterly.
Pyongyang (AsiaNews) - In July alone at least 35 prisoners died of starvation in a prison north of Pyongyang, North Korea, because relatives were unable to deliver extra food rations due to the restrictions imposed for Covid-19. According to internal sources, relayed in a long report published by Radio Free Asia (Rfa), the deaths from malnutrition occurred in Kaechon prison in South Pyongan province.
The forced labour for several hours a day to which the inmates are subjected causes enormous physical strain, and their survival is dependent on additional meals provided by visiting relatives. This, at least, was the case before the pandemic.
In May, North Korea declared a state of 'maximum national emergency' due to the escalation of virus-related infections that had begun the previous month. The measure was withdrawn at the end of July, but all these months families living far away from the prison have been unable to care for their relatives.
This has led to a spike in cases of malnutrition within the prison population and 'more than 20 women have lost their lives' in just a few weeks. 'Last week,' says the source on condition of anonymity, 'I visited my sister in Kaechon prison and she told me that at least 20 female inmates had died of starvation and hard labour.
Before the pandemic, the monthly number of deaths was between three and four, the source adds. 'There are at least 50 female prisoners,' he continues, 'who have been found to be severely malnourished in the women's prison and have been isolated together with a group of sick women. They cannot even stand up or sit down. It seems they are just waiting to die".
"When death occurs... the guards enter the cell and stack the corpses on one side. At the end of the month the other prisoners carry the victims on a stretcher to bury them in the mountains behind the prison". The prisoners, the source concludes, 'cannot stand the hard work while eating only a ball of rice'.
After facing harsh international criticism over the treatment of prisoners, North Korea in 2015 began punishing prison officials where there were numerous prisoner deaths. Among the measures taken was to allow monthly instead of quarterly visits as was the case in the past. In addition, 10% of the food brought in was to be shared with the entire prison population, so that no inmate was excluded from extra rations, even those without family members.
However, since the start of the pandemic in 2020, visits have reverted to quarterly, causing a sharp reduction in available food and triggering a new wave of malnutrition. Nevertheless, the authorities, instead of remedying the crisis, have chosen to impose an even tighter clampdown on news reporting.
Pyongyang declared 'victory' in the fight against Covid-19 - never mentioned in recent months except for a generic reference to a 'viral fever' - on 10 August, declaring the nation free of the pandemic. However, confirmation of continued quarantine arrangements in special centres for infected people or suspected cases are filtering in from the country.
A source in South Pyongan reports that those with temperatures above 37 degrees should be separated from the community. 'The authorities' statement about the end of the maximum emergency,' this source concludes, 'is just false propaganda."