Report: North Korea, Which Claims Zero Coronavirus Cases, Requests Vaccines

Health workers spray disinfectant inside the Pyongyang Department Store No. 1 prior to opening for business, in Pyongyang on December 28, 2020. (Photo by KIM Won Jin / AFP) (Photo by KIM WON JIN/AFP via Getty Images)
KIM WON JIN/AFP via Getty Images

The Wall Street Journal claimed Monday, citing one “person familiar with the matter,” that the communist regime governing North Korea formally submitted a request to participate in a global plan to distribute Chinese coronavirus vaccines, despite insisting it has not confirmed a single case of coronavirus disease within its borders.

The report also claimed North Korean officials had begun inquiring to counterparts in Europe about the potential of purchasing approved vaccines. The report notably did not mention any indication that North Korea has requested doses of vaccine candidates being developed in China, Pyongyang’s closest ally and the origin nation of the Chinese coronavirus.

North Korean state media, the only legal news source in the country, announced Monday that officials would soon “intensify the emergency anti-epidemic work against the situation in which the number of infected persons is growing worldwide in winter.” It again did not make any indication of official diagnoses of coronavirus cases within North Korea’s borders.

North Korea borders China, where the virus originated, and two nations with severe coronavirus outbreaks: South Korea and Russia. Nearby island nations like Japan have also struggled to contain the virus.

Reports from early 2020 indicate that dictator Kim Jong-un rapidly moved to shut down the border between North Korea and China, a pivotal location for the smuggling of goods into North Korea that international sanctions prevent trade in. The Yalu River — in northeast China and northwest North Korea — typically serves as a porous border allowing North Korean traders to sell banned seafood and gold in China, while the Chinese profit by selling scarce goods in North Korea. As of December, reports indicate Kim ordered the deployment of anti-aircraft weaponry along the Chinese border.

The Wall Street Journal claimed that Gavi, an organization that facilitates the global distribution of vaccines, received a request from North Korea to be included in its efforts against the Chinese coronavirus. Gavi is leading an effort organized by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) known as Covax to help poorer countries access coronavirus vaccines, the most advanced of which are currently being produced by developed nations.

Two vaccines have been approved by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use in the United States, both by American companies — Pfizer and Moderna. Other vaccine candidates close to distribution include a product by the U.K. company AstraZeneca and experimental vaccines by the governments of China, Russia, and India.

“Gavi, the international vaccine alliance, declined to comment on North Korea’s application. But the group is assessing individual economies’ demands and expects to provide an update early in the year, a Gavi spokesman said,” according to the Journal. “In recent weeks, North Korea has reached out to several European embassies, inquiring how the country might obtain Covid-19 [Chinese coronavirus] vaccines, according to people familiar with the matter.”

At press time, it is not clear if Pyongyang has been successful in convincing any of those embassies to share advice on how to acquire the vaccines. Through its allies, however, North Korea did achieve some success in accessing more aid through the United Nations. The global agency’s Security Council approved 30 exemptions to the strict global sanctions in place on North Korea, a response to its latest nuclear weapons test in September 2017, to allow for humanitarian aid in light of the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, according to the South Korean news service Yonhap.

“In view of the [Chinese coronavirus] pandemic, the Committee developed a practice of considering pandemic-related humanitarian exemption requests, as well as requests for time extensions to exemption periods, under expedited no-objection procedures,” a statement by the Security Council’s committee on North Korean sanctions read.

To issue those exemptions, the United Nations must have presumably disregarded Pyongyang’s insistence at the venue that it was not suffering any adverse effects from the pandemic.

“At the early stage of the outbreak of [Chinese coronavirus], Chairman Kim Jong-un … ensured that pre-emptive, timely, and strong emergency anti-epidemic measures were taken to prevent the inflow and spread of the pandemic,” North Korean Ambassador Kim Song told the U.N. General Assembly in September. North Korea, he claimed, was “now under safe and stable control.”

North Korean state media claimed this week that communist officials had “intensified” their work against the Chinese coronavirus.

“The central emergency anti-epidemic units have taken positive measures to intensify the emergency anti-epidemic work against the situation in which the number of infected persons is growing worldwide in winter,” the state newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported Monday. “Factories, enterprises, residential offices and neighborhood units are encouraged to rev up the mass anti-epidemic atmosphere in order to overcome the on-going difficulties by dint of collectivism.”

Last week, Rodong Sinmun claimed North Korean officials have increased the number of times “open-air places” are disinfected to prevent the spread of the virus and more strictly imposed the nation’s mask mandate. The propaganda newspaper also claimed that Korean Workers’ Party officials had “intensified the ideological education to make all citizens maintain the unity of action in the emergency anti-epidemic campaign during the holidays.”

North Korea is a formally atheist country whose state religion is the worship of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather and the founder of the country. The “holidays” described by Rodong Sinmun including the birthday of Kim Jong-un’s grandmother, Kim Jong-suk, on December 24; “Constitution Day” on December 27, and New Year’s Eve — celebrated despite the fact that North Korea operates on its own “juche” calendar.

In addition to closing its Chinese border as early as January, North Korea locked down its third-largest city, Chongjin, in June, reportedly in response to a major local outbreak.

The following month, Pyongyang issued a maximum level emergency alert against the Chinese coronavirus and locked down an inter-Korean border city, Kaesong. The measures came after authorities admitted to identifying a suspected Chinese coronavirus case in a North Korean refugee who reportedly fled back to the North from South Korea. State authorities were careful never to officially confirm the case.

“In response to the continuing world pandemic infections, a series of state measures are now being taken to block the virus inflow into the country and all people adhere strictly to anti-epidemic regulations while maintaining the highest alert,” Ambassador Kim said Tuesday.

“The Government of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will not tolerate even a smallest bit of slackness or concession, but further strengthen the state emergency anti-epidemic measures until the danger of the pandemic inflow is completely eliminated,” he added.

“At a time when the world was despairingly drawn into a catastrophe of pandemic crisis, we in the DPRK launched the construction of Pyongyang General Hospital as a modern medical service facility for the people and its construction is now dynamically propelled in its final stage,” Kim boasted.

The envoy’s glowing description of Pyongyang General’s construction contrasts with North Korea’s own state media reports about the hospital’s development just two months ago. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un publicly criticized fellow members of the country’s communist Workers’ Party for their mishandling of the hospital’s construction, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on July 20.

“After hearing a detailed report on the overall situation of the construction from the construction coordination commission on the spot, he [Kim] pointed out serious problems in economic organization for the construction,” KCNA reported. “He said that the construction coordination commission is organizing economy in a careless manner with no budget for the construction properly set up, yet.”

North Korea continues to formally claim zero coronavirus cases in its history. Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, reported this week that some reports indicate doctors in North Korea have seen as many as 4,275 coronavirus cases. The South Korean government has expressed doubts that it is possible for the nation not to have documented a single case, leading to outrage from the North.

“It can be seen from the reckless remarks made by her without any consideration of the consequences that she is too eager to further chill the frozen relations between the north and south of Korea,” Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister, said in a public statement in response to South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha in December, vowing Seoul would “pay dearly” for her words.

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