Hwaseong, South Korea – Like any other country, North Korea can do help against COVID-19.
The country’s population is not immune and vulnerable to disease due to chronic malnutrition. The crumbling health care system lacks supplies of essential medicines and equipment.
But even as North Korea faces the prospect of a humanitarian catastrophe amid the first officially confirmed outbreak of the coronavirus, Pyongyang is steadfastly rejecting offers of international assistance.
The United States and South Korea have not received a response to offers to help tackle the outbreak, including by sending aid, according to South Korean officials.
The World Health Organization, which is “deeply concerned about the risks of the disease spreading”, said the country had not responded to requests for information about the outbreak.
On Thursday, UNICEF said 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 indications that North Korea has turned to China, its neighbor and traditional ally, for help, although this has not been confirmed by either side. Air Koryo, the state airline, has operated several flights to China to get supplies related to the pandemic in recent days, according to several South Korean news outlets, citing anonymous sources.
North Korea, whose dynastic leadership espouses an official ideology of self-reliance known as “juchi”, has long been known for its secrecy and hostility toward the outside world.
In January 2020, the country, ruled by the third generation of dictator Kim Jong Un, became one of the first to close its borders in response to the coronavirus. Despite mounting cases around the world, Pyongyang has repeatedly refused to accept offers of coronavirus vaccines from the international community, including the UN-backed COVAX initiative.
Until last week, North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, had not reported a single case of COVID-19, a record many analysts doubt given the virus’ transmissibility and long porous borders. with China.
Since then, the number of people with “fever” symptoms has passed 2.2 million, although it is unclear how many people have tested positive for COVID-19.
Dan Chung, executive director of the US-based Christian organization Crossing the Border, described the country’s refusal to help as “certain”, given discussions he had with North Korean defectors suggesting the country is in a “much worse situation than they allow.” employment”.
“It indicates that North Korea is either not ready to accept a vaccine due to restrictions such as lack of cooling or because they do not want to show the world the dilapidated state of their outer regions,” Chung told Al Jazeera. “I think it’s a combination of the two.”
North Korea, where government propaganda declares “we have nothing to envy in the world,” has a history of hiding internal crises from the international community.
During the devastating famine of the mid-1990s, officials initially downplayed the severity of food shortages, and international aid workers reported that they led on phased-managed tours of Pyongyang to drive them away from rural areas where famine was rampant.
Despite Kim berating officials for their “slowness” in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak, state media have claimed that the crisis has turned a corner in recent days.
On Friday, the Korean Central News Agency said the authorities had achieved “good results” in their fight against the epidemic, although more than 260,000 daily cases of people with fever symptoms were recorded.
Official reports also highlighted the use of home remedies, traditional medicine, and efforts to ramp up production of medicines and medical supplies.
Attempts to control its own people
Alistair Morgan, who served as the UK’s ambassador to North Korea from 2005 to 2008, said the country’s reluctance to accept aid may be due to fears that it will be seen as beholden to other countries or concerns about “hostile states” gaining information about the country. .
“He agrees with the increased efforts to achieve autonomy after the failure of the Hanoi summit,” Morgan told Al Jazeera, referring to the failed denuclearization talks between Kim and former US President Donald Trump.
“I think there are multiple reasons for that, related to the attempts of the DPRK regime to control its own people and its ability to access information about the regime and the outside world and its position and trying to manage the outside world.”
While the true extent of deaths and illness within North Korea is unclear, the country certainly faces a humanitarian catastrophe.
Although authorities have reported only 65 deaths so far, the 2.2 million cases are expected to result in tens of thousands of deaths among the unvaccinated population.
The highly contagious nature of the Omicron variant, the worldwide dominant strain, also means that outbreaks are likely to grow exponentially. 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.
Ki Park, a doctor who has made more than a dozen humanitarian trips to North Korea, said the country clearly needed outside help.
“Their acceptance of aid 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 assistance was provided with or without minimum monitoring requirements. This is really a health emergency. However, deaths can be prevented if the right medicines and supplies are able to reach those who need them in a timely manner. Conversely, inconsistency on the part of North Korea will lead to unnecessary delays. Saving lives must be the most important consideration at this time and we must all act quickly.”
A looming public health disaster is also likely to exacerbate the economic and food security crises that have built up since the pandemic began. Last year, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that North Korea would be 860,000 tons below its food needs in 2021. Even before the pandemic, the United Nations estimated that more than a quarter of the population was malnourished.
“One of the issues is agriculture,” Morgan said. “This is rice growing season. If collective activity is not permitted, or large bodies of labor are not available for cultivation – due to illness, lockdown or diversion to other tasks – this could have an impact on the food supply this fall. I think food distribution is likely To be under really heavy pressure.”