TOKYO - Living conditions in North Korea - marked by food shortages, political repression and now icy winter weather - have deteriorated over the past year, a United Nations special envoy said Friday.
"The situation is grave for various reasons," said Vitit Muntarbhorn, the UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, who pointed at "very serious food shortages and other shortages over the past few years."
"The food situation and the clampdown on people's ability to trade, the revaluation of the won as well as the persecution and the punishments against refugees and their families - all these got worse in the past year."
Food shortages have been made more painful because "it's the elite that creams off the food produce," said Muntarbhorn, whose six-year term expires this year, at a press conference in Tokyo.
"There's also a shortage of medicines, particularly now the H1N1 flu has arrived," said Muntarbhorn, who said he had interviewed many refugees from North Korea but never been allowed to visit the isolated country.
"And of course this winter is very cold," he said, with sub-zero temperatures a serious problem in a country with shortages of heating fuel.
North Korea's regime in late November also dealt an economic blow to its people when it knocked two zeroes off its currency, a 100-for-one revaluation seen as aimed at clamping down on emerging market activity.
The authorities restricted the amount of old notes that could be changed for new ones, sparking anger among those who stood to lose savings. The government then banned the use of foreign currency from New Year's Day.
In a report to the UN General Assembly in October, Muntarbhorn described the North's rights record as "abysmal" and said more than one third of its 24 million people go hungry despite abundant natural resources.
People are subject to persecution, clampdowns, collective punishment, torture, arbitrary executions and public executions, Muntarbhorn wrote.
He will submit a final report to the UN Human Rights Council in March.