Explosion of ‘fever cases’ . . .
After two years of its unyielding zero-COVID strategy, North Korea is scrambling to contain a massive outbreak of infections. The number of suspected cases since early May is now at 1.5 million. However, many are described in state media as ‘fever cases’ as the country lacks the testing capacity to confirm that these are, in fact, COVID-19 cases. Since the start of the pandemic, North Korea’s approach to keeping the virus at bay was hermetically sealing its borders and halting the movement of goods and people, thereby worsening shortages of food and medicine. But there may have been a weak link in the country’s defences. Recent spikes in China along the two countries’ shared border could have been partly responsible for driving up North Korea’s current case count.
Brushing aside a helping hand . . .
While many countries have experienced successive waves of COVID-19, North Korea’s first wave is a cause for alarm because its population remains largely unvaccinated. In September, Pyongyang declined China’s offer of three million doses of its Sinovac vaccine, possibly to hold out for more effective Western-sourced vaccines. But it also rebuffed the more than eight million doses on offer through the UN-backed Covax initiative, partly because administering those vaccines would have required international monitors to enter the country, a risk the government was apparently unwilling to take. Given how rapidly the virus is spreading and the time needed for vaccinations to take effect, some international public health experts say the near-term focus should shift to prevention and treatment.
(Almost) nowhere left to turn . . .
The silver lining to North Korea’s current crisis is that it could pry open some space for international engagement based on humanitarian grounds. But it is not clear whether the country is re-considering the risks vs. rewards of accepting assistance from countries it does not trust. On Monday, South Korean president Yoon Seok-yeol offered unconditional assistance in the form of vaccines, masks, medical personnel, and testing kits. There is no indication that Pyongyang has responded to that offer. Instead, it seems poised to respond favourably to China’s more recent offer of assistance. Whether that small opening leads to broader international engagement is by no means certain.
- The Guardian: Kim Jong-un calls in the army to respond to North Korea’s Covid-19 crisis
- The Korea Herald: ‘Too late for vaccines to save North Korea’
- Nikkei Asia: North Korea turns to China for help as COVID cases explode