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US continues to support COVID-19 aid to N. Korea despite ‘escalatory actions’

Experts doubt data validity, highlight urgency of providing vaccines and antiviral drugs to N. Korea

A photo released by the North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on 20 Mayshows medical service personnel in the military handing out medical supplies at a pharmacy to curb the current coronavirus disease health crisis in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Yonhap)
A photo released by the North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on 20 Mayshows medical service personnel in the military handing out medical supplies at a pharmacy to curb the current coronavirus disease health crisis in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Yonhap)
The Biden administration continues to support providing COVID-19-related humanitarian assistance to North Korea despite the country’s continued ballistic missile launches and its “escalatory actions,” a senior official at the US State Department said Wednesday.

Mark Lambert, deputy assistant secretary of state for Japan and South Korea, said the US is “alarmed by the serious outbreak of COVID-19” in North Korea during a press briefing.

The Biden administration is concerned about the potential impact of the pandemic and the Kim Jong-un regime’s response to North Korea’s unvaccinated people, shattered economy and dire food situation as well as “stability and security on the Korean Peninsula and in the region.”

“The US position remains unchanged, even in light of these most recent escalatory actions. We continue to support humanitarian assistance and the provision of COVID-19-related assistance, including mRNA vaccines to the DPRK,” Lambert told a press briefing hosted by Washington Foreign Press Center, referring to a shortened form of the North’s official name.

He elucidated that the US sees humanitarian assistance as separate from progress in the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Lambert’s comments came after North Korea early on Wednesday fired what the South Korean military views as an intercontinental ballistic missile and two short-range ballistic missiles. North Korea unprecedentedly launched different types of ballistic missiles hours after Biden left the Asia-Pacific region and just before he arrived in the US.

The Biden administration has endorsed the idea of providing North Korea with COVID-19 vaccines donated through the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access program, better known as COVAX. But the US State Department this month said it does not have a plan to bilaterally share vaccines with North Korea.

“We strongly support and encourage the efforts of US and international aid and health organizations seeking to prevent and contain the spread of COVID-19 in the DPRK and to provide critical humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable North Koreans living there,” Lambert said. “We urge the DPRK to work with the international community to facilitate the rapid vaccination of its population.”

In their joint statement, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and US President Joe Biden on May 21 said they are committed to working with the international community to assist North Korea to help the country combat COVID-19.

But their offer has been met with silence even as North Korea’s total cases of “fever” have surpassed 3 million since late April, amid what is widely believed to be a COVID-19 outbreak.

Validity of official data
North Korea’s state emergency epidemic prevention headquarters reported the total number of recorded fever cases had reached 3,170,380 as of Wednesday afternoon, which accounted for around 12 percent of North Korea’s total population. But the death toll officially remains 68.

North Korea claimed that its daily new fever cases remained above 100,000 for a fifth consecutive day and there were no new deaths among people with fevers for three days in a row as of Wednesday afternoon.

But medical and North Korea experts on Thursday concurred that the Kim Jong-un regime has fabricated statistics about the number of deaths for political purposes, such as stabilization of public opinion and propaganda during a forum on the COVID-19 outbreak and its implications for the domestic situation and foreign relations. 

They also pointed to the lack of diagnostic devices and poor medical infrastructure as hampering the regime’s capabilities to grasp the COVID-19 situation.

Dr. Kim Sin-gon, the director of the Association of Healthcare for Korean Unification, pointed out the number of COVID-19 cases may have exceeded 10 million if North Korean people with fever symptoms have been infected with the omicron variant, warning, “Omicron could infect the entire population in a month at this pace.”

Kim also explained that the fatality rate among fever cases is officially 0.002 percent, which is unconvincing. South Korea’s COVID-19 fatality rate stands at 0.13 percent.

Echoing the view, Choi Won-suk, a professor at Seoul’s Korea University College of Medicine, said the fatality rate would range from 0.5 to 1 percent if the entire population is unvaccinated and has no immunity.

Choi said the data provided by Pyongyang is unlikely to present a true picture of the virus spread, explaining that the dominant BA.2 subvariant of omicron, or stealth omicron, is as severe as the original omicron variant.

Urgency of humanitarian aid
Under such a situation, medical experts emphasized the urgency of providing COVID-19 vaccines and antiviral drugs to North Korea.

Choi forecast that North Korea could be the epicenter of new variants should the virus spread at a fast pace across the country. The emergence of virus mutations would cause trouble for neighboring countries including China and South Korea due to spillover.

“Therefore, providing humanitarian assistance and especially delivering COVID-19 medical supplies have implications for South Korea and the international community’s response to COVID-19,” Choi said.

Kim also explained that wider inoculations are required for North Korea to reopen its borders.

“In the worst scenario, North Korea may seek to build herd immunity (without vaccines), but the country will be unable to confirm whether the population is immunized,” Kim said. “My view is that the country should opt to start vaccinations to reopen borders.”

But what North Korea expects to receive are antiviral drugs, mainly due to the time frame of securing COVID-19 vaccines, said Lee Woo-tae, director of the humanitarianism and cooperation research division at the government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification.

The delivery of vaccine cold chain equipment for North Korea requires UN sanctions exemptions, and therefore the process will take up to six months.

“North Korea needs antiviral drugs as the COVID-19 situation will be aggravated until vaccines are available,” Lee said.

Lee also underscored that the US holds the key to expediting the process of delivering vaccines and medications to North Korea. But the Kim Jong-un regime is unlikely to return to dialogue to facilitate humanitarian aid at a time when the country is pushing with missile launches and as it prepares to resume nuclear testing.

“If North Korea resumes negotiations with the US, the country will have to step back from the current confrontation. Furthermore, North Korea will have to make a shift in its national strategy, which can internally raise doubts about the North Korean leadership,” Lee said at the forum.

Lee said Pyongyang will eventually choose a path to adhere to lockdown measures and introduce China-produced vaccines to soothe public fears while maintaining the stalemate with Washington.