May 13, 2022 12:30
North Korea on Thursday admitted that the coronavirus pandemic has breached its border lockdown and declared "the gravest national emergency."
North Korea is one of only two countries in the world without COVID-19 vaccines because it has so far claimed to be free of the disease. The other is Eritrea.
Thursday's announcement raises concerns that the virus is running rampant among its unvaccinated population, especially since the crackpot country has only the most rudimentary healthcare system.
State media claimed the first case was only detected on May 8. In an emergency meeting, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wore a mask for the first time but had no answer except to stress the need for a tighter lockdown and even stricter border controls although the borders are already sealed.
On Friday, the official [North] Korean News Agency reported that six people have died from COVID-19 including one linked to the Omicron variant, and symptoms were reported by more than 18,000 people the previous day alone. Pyongyang held a massive military parade to mark the 90th anniversary of its army's founding in late April, which may have been a super-spreader event.
Pyongyang has repeatedly rejected offers of vaccines from the UN-backed COVAX Facility, and UN officials announced last month that the allocated doses are no longer available.
The border closures have exacerbated humanitarian concerns, including shortages of food and medical supplies. The UN has estimated that 63.1 percent of North Korea's population is food insecure, and imported medications are running out.
Lockdowns in addition to sanctions caused the North Korean economy to contract 4.5 percent in 2020, the largest drop since the famine of the 1990s.
North Korea resumed limited trade with China at the beginning of this year, but it was halted again late last month in response to rising COVID cases in China. Analysts also say inflation is worsening North Korea's food shortages.
An outbreak in North Korea could also have dangerous consequences for the rest of the world, making the country a breeding ground for new variants, according to an panel convened by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Places such as North Korea are at high risk of becoming the epicenter of new variants due to their low vaccine access and uncertain immunity levels," according to the CSIS report in March.
Without vaccines, it is unclear how North Korea could ever start to reopen, but the regime has extensive experience weathering isolation and starving its people, so it will probably keep its borders closed as long as possible.
"The most important factor is the COVID situation in China," Ahn Kyung-su of Seoul-based research center DPRKHealth.org said. "If China's COVID situation does not improve, North Korea will have no choice but to maintain its border closure policy."
Experts guess that the most tempting offer of vaccines would include enough mRNA doses to cover 80 to 100 percent of North Korea's population. Pyongyang has already rejected offers of China's less effective Sinovac vaccine as well as AstraZeneca out of fears over side effects. Some North Koreans have said privately that they would prefer mRNA vaccines, according to the CSIS report.
South Korea's Unification Minister nominee Kwon Young-se, responded to the news of North Korea's COVID outbreak in his confirmation hearing Thursday, saying, "We are more than willing to help with the difficulties North Korea is facing."
"It remains to be seen how North Korea would respond if COVAX or the U.S. offered Pfizer or Moderna vaccines," Ahn said. "I think it's possible that North Korea would accept one of these vaccines."
But Ahn added that he thinks it is more likely that North Korea would accept COVID medication. "Medicines are much easier to transport and distribute than vaccines, and it involves fewer people and management concerns."
But Pyongyang might be concerned that any humanitarian package would be linked to conditions like monitoring or denuclearization.
The UN's rapporteur on human rights in Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has urged the international community to prioritize finding a way to get vaccines to North Korea's population.
"The current approach by the international community is not securing improvements to the situation of human rights" in North Korea, he wrote in a report. "A new way of thinking needs to take hold. This will require vision and initiative, driven by the needs of the North Korean people rather than any other agenda."
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