(Bloomberg) -- World powers should consider easing some sanctions on North Korea as the risk of starvation due to Covid-19 restrictions increases, a United Nations official said.

Drastic containment measures taken by Kim Jong Un’s regime have left the country completely isolated from the world and its people deprived of the most basic necessities, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, told reporters Friday.

“As long as the borders continue to be closed, we may be facing risk of starvation among some segments of the population in the country,” he said, citing a report his team submitted to the UN General Assembly.

People’s access to food is a serious concern and the most vulnerable children and elderly are at risk of starvation, he said.

Even though North Korea says it has no coronavirus cases -- a claim doubted by U.S. and Japanese officials -- it has taken drastic containment measures that have worsened the regime’s economic woes, including closing the border with its biggest trading partner, China. 

While Quintana criticized the regime for continuing to develop nuclear weapons, he urged the Security Council to review and ease some sanctions to facilitate humanitarian and life-saving assistance. He argued that in practice the sanctions hurt average citizens as Kim’s nuclear weapons program continues unabated.

After a series of missile launches and nuclear weapons tests by North Korea in 2017, the UN Security Council imposed three rounds of sanctions on Pyongyang, including bans on exports of iron, coal, lead, seafood and textiles as well as some oil-import restrictions. While China and Russia have since called for easing some sanctions, the U.S. and its Western allies have rejected the notion as long as North Korea spurns talks and continues developing its nuclear arsenal.

Foreign aid organizations have had trouble getting into North Korea to deliver humanitarian assistance, with the World Food Program saying in late 2020 that it would be “critical” for the country to ease restrictions “on the entry of international personnel.” With harvests falling short and imports curtailed, North Korea this year is facing a shortage of about 860,000 metric tons, equivalent to about 2.3 months of food use for the entire country, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

North Korea is struggling to inoculate its population, which means it risks remaining closed for longer. The country was offered about 1.7 million doses of vaccines in July through the Covax vaccine-sharing program, but shipments were delayed due to the lack of technical preparedness and global vaccine shortages, according to the UN rapporteur’s report.

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