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Coronavirus in North Korea: the covid reaches the least indicated place and opens the doors to a possible catastrophe

The detection of thousands of possible cases of the contagious omicron variant in North Korea draw a potential catastrophe in an impoverished country has not administered a single vaccine and that, in addition to health implications, can have serious consequences in the food, economic or geostrategic plan.

Although North Korea has between 30 and 40 doctors for every 10,000 inhabitants, level similar to France or its southern neighborhas successfully deployed vaccination campaigns with coverage of more than 90% of the population for polio or diphtheria and, at least until a decade ago, surpassed South Korea in beds per inhabitant, it is the lack of equipment and medicines what is most worrying.

The lean years of the 1990s and early 2000s already depleted health supplies in the provinces and to that we must add the effect that international sanctions have when it comes to obtaining parts to repair equipment or the months in which imports from China have been suspended due to the pandemic.

Kim Jong-Un wearing a mask appears on televisions in Tokyo. Photo: AP

“The situation it’s bad. The most urgent thing is that the UN and the international community donate humanitarian aid including medicines to treat covid symptoms, antivirals, in addition to vaccinations and the necessary infrastructure for cold chains; from trucks to fuel for transportation and to generate electricity,” says Lina Yoon, North Korea researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).


North Korea has refused almost five million vaccines of AstraZeneca and Sinovac offered by COVAX, apparently because of the regime’s refusal to allow staff to enter the country to advise on cold chains.

Another possibility advocated by some experts is that North Korea, which has made self-sufficiency its maxim, does not want to depend on anyone nor show to the people that it is incapable of solving this situation by itself.

A person disinfects products in Pyongyang.  Photo: AP

A person disinfects products in Pyongyang. Photo: AP

Although it has not publicized it in a big way, the regime said last year that was developing its own vaccine without offering further details since then.

Media outlets with contacts inside the country affirm that North Korean scientists would be trying to apply a kind of “reverse engineering” to vaccine samples obtained in China and Russia, while different laboratories have denounced North Korean hacker attacks.

quarantine systems

many wonder how did the virus get to the country after implementing for more than two years a system that prevented the entry of anyone – not even North Koreans – from abroad, doubling the border fences or giving order to fire anyone approaching the divide, whether from the North Korean side or from China, Russia or South Korea.

The absence of NGOs and observers on the ground makes it impossible to know to what extent these measures have affected the illegal cross border tradea basic part of the economy in the north of the country, but it is very possible that some merchandise dealer was the origin of the spread of omicron.

A woman disinfects a food store in the North Korean capital.  Photo: AP

A woman disinfects a food store in the North Korean capital. Photo: AP

Another plausible option is that asymptomatic people who have participated in permitted trade routes with China (railroad and high seas) has ended up transmitting the contagious variant despite the strictness of the system for the entry of imported goods, which implies disinfect products and store them for weeks or one-month quarantines for sailors before they can disembark.

In any case, it is worrying that in the face of the current outbreaks, the regime, which has urged the confinement of each “city and county”, will further tighten a prevention system that is already awfully strict and the economic consequences that it may have for a country that depends on its purchases from China.

economy and food

Omicron detection in North Korea it comes at a bad time for two reasons, starting with the fact that May-June is the main window for planting rice, a vital campaign for the country’s pantry that implies, as Yoon recalls, the mobilization of all over 14 years in the fields for a month, which may be affected by the lockdowns.

The country is also in full “borigogae” (“the slope of the barley”), spring period of greatest scarcity since the crops harvested in autumn and winter are already finishing and it is still early to harvest barley or wheat.

North Koreans with masks, in front of the Pyongyang train station.  Photo: Reuters

North Koreans with masks, in front of the Pyongyang train station. Photo: Reuters

A large-scale lockdown can also greatly damage the already battered north korean economymany of whom depend on self-employment activities as they do not receive food aid from the State, and to this context we must add the fact that this is the third year of the pandemic closure “and people may have already spent their savings,” adds Yoon.

What is the North Korean strategy?

The moment chosen to announce the appearance of infections – the regime says that outbreaks started in mid aprilbut waited until now to report it, just a week before US President Joe Biden visits South Korea. is giving analysts pause.

Many point to possible political motivations at a time when the regime is also carrying out a record number of weapons tests and preparing a new nuclear test.

A South Korean looks towards North Korea, the most secretive country in the world.  Photo: AP

A South Korean looks towards North Korea, the most secretive country in the world. Photo: AP

The ultimate goal, however, seems more difficult to elucidate, especially with regard to accepting or not – after more than two years rejecting shipments – humanitarian aid that is more necessary than ever and that the international community is willing to export.

On the one hand, accepting this aid can, in addition to saving many lives and the economy, create a favorable climate for resume dialogue with Washingtonalthough on the other hand, having a way out for the pandemic that comes from outside means for the regime to admit its failure to the public and put an end to a border closure that has served Kim Jong-un to reinforce the physical and ideological coercion of the population.

The author is a journalist for EFE

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