North Korea to receive supplies from the World Health Organization

Asia Perri
North Korea to receive supplies from the World Health Organization
Cover by TNGO Illustrator Thurya Silva

Despite North Korea’s reports of zero cases of COVID-19, the country has finally accepted to receive external aid through the World Health Organization.

North Korean secrecy is nothing new to external observers, so government reports of zero cases of COVID-19 in 2021 are hardly shocking. This data’s veracity, although received by the World Health Organization, cannot be assumed to be reliable, and while many countries have COVID-19 testing systems that underestimate the true number of cases, the hermit kingdom’s assertions that COVID-19 has not reached North Korea seem bizarre. According to the North Korean government, in September 40,000 North Koreans were tested for COVID-19, but all tested negative for the virus.

Despite these strange assertions from its leader Kim Jong-un, the country is receiving humanitarian aid to help fight the virus. The WHO’s representative to North Korea, Edwin Salvador, has even said that the DPRK government has developed a plan for when the vaccination program can begin. This plan has been created through collaboration with the United Nations.

North Korean leader

Kim Jong-un in 2021. Source: BBC

Furthermore, the country has been closed off from the rest of the world since the start of the pandemic; its borders with China and Russia closing in order to keep the virus at bay. This has come at the cost of the country’s economy, which has been said to have suffered greatly due to the complete shutdown of external trade. This shutdown has also hampered anti-COVID efforts within the country itself, with anti-bacterial hand gel having to be smuggled in. So severe were these restrictions that North Korea refused to allow its athletes to compete at the Tokyo Olympic Games – despite every other country in the world attending – for fears that the athletes may come into contact with the contagion and infect the country.

This paranoia and fear shown by the country completely contradict its refusal to receive 3 million Sinovac vaccinations to be distributed to the population, countering the offer with the assertion that there are no cases of COVID-19 in North Korea, and that the vaccines would be better used in worse affected countries that cannot afford vaccinations.

Observers have noted that this posturing may be a ploy to receive ‘better’ vaccines due to rumors of inefficiency and blood clotting from the Sinovac vaccines. It has also previously turned down offers from AstraZeneca, citing the same reasons. The idea of an international ploy is likely due to this rejection, which coincides with the expansion of North Korean nuclear testing sites. Observers have identified this as a sign that the country is about to pressure the international community into providing humanitarian aid. 

North Korean students

Students get their temperature taken before entering the Pyongyang Secondary School. Source: Voa News

While the country remains silent and little news escapes its borders during this intensified self-isolation, anti-COVID resources such as emergency health kits, medicine, and medical supplies for essential health services remain quarantined in the port of Nampho after arriving through Dalian, a Chinese port city close to the North Korean border.

There has been no update on their condition nor their location, so it is impossible to know whether these supplies have in fact reached North Korea. The hope lies in the opening up of shipping routes between China and North Korea in recent weeks, but Kim Jong-un’s regime remains as unpredictable as ever.

  • Why would North Korea accept anti-COVID supplies but reject vaccinations?
  • Is the United Nations responsible for ensuring that North Koreans have access to vaccinations?
  • Why would the North Korean government hide its COVID-19 infection rates?

Suggested Readings

The Conversation (2021), “North Korea’s costly COVID response is pushing Kim Jong-un to play political games”

The Diplomat (2021), “What’s Behind North Korea’s Extreme Vaccine Hesitancy?”

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North Korea to receive su…

by Asia Perri time to read: 3 min