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23 May 2022

North Korea’s Covid-19 catastrophe

With suspected cases surging past two million and the population unvaccinated, will Kim Jong Un accept international help?

By Katie Stallard

Covid is spreading rapidly in North Korea, where the number of suspected cases since the start of the outbreak in late April is now more than 2.6 million, according to the latest official figures. Or to put that another way: approximately 10 per cent of the population. The outlook is grim. North Korea has no vaccines, limited supplies of even basic medicines, and its citizens are chronically malnourished. Public health experts are warning that the death toll could be “unprecedented”.

South Korea, China, the United States, and the global vaccine-sharing programme Covax have all offered help, but so far the response from Pyongyang, in public at least, has been silence.  

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has attempted to shift blame for the Covid outbreak to lower-level officials, criticising their “irresponsible” work attitude and the “immaturity” of the initial response. By contrast, the domestic propaganda apparatus has gone to great lengths to vaunt Kim’s own leadership, with state media outlets depicting him working tirelessly on behalf of his citizens, and claiming that he has donated his family’s personal medical supplies to help. They have also sought to demonstrate that the situation is already improving. The state news agency KCNA reported on 22 May that the rate of new infections was beginning to decline and that the outbreak had been “stably controlled and managed”. Citizens have been assured that official efforts are achieving “good results” and that they will soon emerge victorious in the ongoing “anti-epidemic war”.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that this is the case. The regime has imposed a the nationwide lockdown – which will cause its own suffering by exacerbating existing food shortages. More than one million party workers, teachers, and students who have been mobilised alongside the military to help, but without vaccines and the antiviral drugs they would need to effectively treat infections, manpower alone will not be enough to halt the virus’ spread. The lack of testing capacity has made it difficult even to determine the full extent of the outbreak, with official statements referring to “fever” cases in the absence of accurate data. The authorities have also been dispensing some distinctly dubious medical advice, urging citizens to drink herbal tea and gargle with salt water to protect themselves against the virus.

For the last two and a half years, Kim has relied on a strategy of keeping the virus out of the country by closing the borders and drastically limiting international trade, while turning down all offers of foreign vaccines. As long as case numbers were low (until two weeks ago, they were officially zero), he presumably preferred to be seen to be handling the situation without outside help and may have been concerned that foreign aid workers would themselves spread the virus. He was likely also keen to avoid the scrutiny that would come with an international vaccine programme. That decision could now have catastrophic consequences.

Given the scale of the crisis that is currently unfolding, the question is whether Kim will now reverse that position, accept international help, and embark on a mass vaccination campaign.  The signs so far are not promising. While there has been no response to the offer of vaccines and medical assistance, US and South Korean officials have warned that Pyongyang appears to be preparing to conduct another provocative long-range missile test.  

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