Hwaseong, South Korea – Like no other country, North Korea could use some help against COVID-19.
The country’s population is not vaccinated and is susceptible to diseases due to chronic malnutrition. Its dilapidated health system lacks supplies of medicine and basic equipment.
But even as North Korea faces the prospect of a humanitarian catastrophe amid its first officially confirmed coronavirus outbreakPyongyang flatly rejects offers of international assistance.
The United States and South Korea have not received a response to offers to help tackle the outbreak, including sending aid, according to South Korean officials.
The World Health Organization, which is “deeply concerned about the risk of further spread”, said the country had not responded to requests for information about the outbreak.
Unicef said on Thursday that it had proposed a “support package that could help protect health workers and manage the number of cases” but had not yet been able to contact its partners in the country.
At the same time, there are signs that North Korea has turned to China, its neighbor and traditional ally, for help, although neither side has confirmed this. Air Koryo, the state-owned airline, has operated several flights to China for pandemic-related supplies in recent days, according to multiple South Korean media outlets, citing unnamed sources.
North Korea, whose dynastic leadership proclaims an official ideology of self-sufficiency known as “juche,” has long been known for its secrecy and hostility to the outside world.
In January 2020, the country, ruled by third-generation dictator Kim Jong Un, became one of the first countries to seal its borders in response to the coronavirus. Despite escalating cases around the world, Pyongyang has repeatedly refused to accept coronavirus vaccine offers from the international community, including the UN-backed COVAX initiative.
As of last week, the North, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), had not reported a single case of COVID-19, a record many analysts doubt given the virus’ transmissibility and the country’s long and porous border. . with chinese
Since then, the number of people reported with “fever” symptoms has surpassed 2.2 million cases, though it’s unclear how many of them have tested positive for COVID-19.
Dan Chung, executive director of the US-based Christian aid group Crossing Borders, described the country’s refusal of assistance as “speakable” given conversations he has had with North Korean defectors that suggest the country is in “very much trouble.” worse conditions than they are leaving”. on”.
“It indicates that North Korea is not ready to accept the vaccine due to limitations such as lack of refrigeration or because it does not want to show the world the dilapidated state of its outer regions,” Chung told Al Jazeera. “I guess it’s a combination of both.”
North Korea, where state propaganda proclaims “we have nothing to envy in the world,” has a history of hiding internal crises from the international community.
During a devastating famine in the mid-1990s, officials initially downplayed the severity of food shortages, with international aid workers reporting being led on staged tours of Pyongyang to keep them away from rural areas where famine it was rampant.
Despite Kim chiding officials for their “carelessness” in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak, state media have claimed that the crisis has taken a turn in recent days.
On Friday, the Korean Central News Agency said authorities were achieving “good results” in their fight against the pandemic despite recording more than 260,000 daily cases of people with feverish symptoms.
Official reports have also highlighted the use of folk remedies and traditional medicine and efforts to increase the production of medicines and medical supplies.
‘Attempts to control their own people’
Alastair Morgan, who served as UK ambassador to North Korea from 2005 to 2008, said the country’s reluctance to accept aid could be due to fears of being seen as indebted to other countries or concerns about “hostile states” getting access to information about the country.
“It is consistent with the growing efforts to achieve self-sufficiency after the failure of the Hanoi summit,” Morgan told Al Jazeera, referring to the failed denuclearization negotiations between Kim and former US President Donald Trump.
“I think there are multiple reasons for this, having to do with the DPRK regime’s attempts to control its own people and their access to information about the regime and the outside world and their attitude and attempt to manage the outside world. ”.
While the true extent of death and disease within North Korea is unclear, the country is surely facing a humanitarian disaster.
Although authorities have reported only 65 deaths so far, a case number of 2.2 million infections could be expected to result in tens of thousands of deaths in an unvaccinated population.
The highly infectious nature of the Omicron variant, the dominant strain worldwide, also means that the outbreak is likely to grow considerably. In neighboring South Korea, where more than 85 percent of the population has been vaccinated, nearly a third of the population, or 18 million people, have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
Kee Park, a doctor who has made more than a dozen humanitarian trips to North Korea, said the country clearly needs outside help.
“Whether they accept assistance from sources other than China depends on what, who and how the aid enters the country,” Park told Al Jazeera.
“It would be helpful if the aid is offered with minimal or no follow-up requirements. This is truly a health emergency. However, deaths are preventable if the right drugs and supplies can reach those who need them in time. On the contrary, North Korea’s ambivalence will lead to unnecessary delays. Saving lives must be the most important consideration at this time and we must all act quickly.”
The looming public health disaster is also likely to compound the food security and economic crises that have been building since the pandemic began. Last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that North Korea would fall 860,000 tons short of its food needs in 2021. Even before the pandemic, UN estimates suggested that more than one quarter of the population was malnourished.
“One problem is agriculture,” Morgan said. “This is the rice planting season. If mass activity is not allowed, or if there is not a large amount of labor available to plant, due to illness, confinement or diversion to other tasks, this could have an impact on the food supply this fall. I think it’s likely that food distribution is already severely under pressure.”