For more than two years, isolated North Korea claimed success in keeping Covid out, even turning down multiple vaccine offers, calling them unnecessary. That changed last month.
In a series of urgent messages, North Korea’s state media announced that an unspecified fever was spreading “explosively”. The country was locked down. More than four million cases have been reported, with dozens of deaths.
It is a frightening prospect for an unvaccinated, malnourished country of 25 million people. But bad news doesn’t escape North Korea without reason. Finally, acknowledging a viral outbreak may be part of a strategy by its leader, Kim Jong-un, to reconnect with the outside world. The world should also be ready to participate.
Since the collapse of his nuclear negotiations with President Donald Trump in 2019, quickly followed by the global spread of Covid, Mr Kim has retreated into isolation that is deep, even by North Korea’s hermetic standards. This is devastating to his people. It is also a threat to peace and security outside the Korean peninsula: he has spent the intervening time strengthening his power — and expanding his nuclear arsenal.
North Korea is now said to possess dozens of nuclear devices and appears poised to conduct a seventh nuclear test. It has launched dozens of missiles this year alone that violate UN Security Council resolutions, including most recently a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile designed to reach the United States.
Questions about the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, as well as vaccines and treatments.
The saber chatter is nothing new. North Korea’s weapons program has vexed four predecessors of President Biden, each of whom used a combination of different incentives and sanctions, ultimately failing to halt production of nuclear warheads and missiles.
So why admit a Covid outbreak now? Just as Mr. Kim sends a message with his rocket launches, he sends another one by admitting the outbreak.
First of all, don’t believe for a second that Covid has only just appeared in North Korea. The virus circulated for weeks in China — which had extensive cross-border trade with North Korea and regular flights between Beijing and Pyongyang — before North Korea sealed its borders in late January 2020.
Nor should we overvalue North Korea’s more recent claims that it has been successful in combating the outbreak. Covid is likely to get “worse, not better,” Michael Ryan, the emergency director for the World Health Organization, said last week. The WHO has expressed concern about an uncontrolled spread among unvaccinated North Koreans.
The number of cases in the capital Pyongyang may have increased so rapidly that the outbreak had to be recognized. But there is also likely an element of political timing involved in announcing the outbreak just before Mr Biden’s recent trip to South Korea and Japan.
mr. Kim may be following a two-track strategy. The missile launches perpetuate tensions with the United States and South Korea — helping him justify building his nuclear arsenal, putting him in a stronger position for future stalemates or negotiations.
And the Covid confession serves as a face-saving way to get humanitarian aid and other supplies from Beijing – which is always concerned about its neighbor falling into crisis – after Mr Kim rejected China’s previous offers of vaccines. Just days after announcing the outbreak, North Korea reportedly sent three cargo planes to Shenyang, China, to pick up emergency supplies. More have recently arrived by rail. It may already be receiving Chinese vaccines.
Help is definitely needed. North Koreans have faced chronic food shortages since a massive famine in the 1990s. Fruit, vegetables and meat are luxuries for most people, and malnutrition can be seen in the blotchy skin, sunken cheekbones and gaunt forms of the many people I’ve encountered across the country during my years of reporting on the ground. The past two years of border closures that blocked the flow of food, medicine and other supplies have made survival more difficult.
Most hospitals and clinics do not have heating, medicines or supplies. I’ve seen North Korean nurses dump syringes into a sink and rinse them in disinfectant for reuse. In winter, doctors and patients bundle up in heavy quilted coats as heat is reserved for the operating room.
A North Korean doctor told me years ago that she relied on preventive care because she had no medicine to offer patients, even for diarrhea, which she said kills dozens of North Korean children every year. Hand-drawn posters lining the walls of her rural clinic suggested eating two bulbs of raw garlic, drinking spirits with an egg and sliced ginseng, or drinking lukewarm water with sliced scallions and sugar to ward off colds and flu. keep out.
Outside the capital, most North Koreans living in mountainous areas can’t even reach provincial hospitals because of bad roads and poor transportation, the doctor told me. They are probably sick in isolation.
The prospects for new talks with North Korea seem unlikely at this point. Mr Biden has made it clear that he will not court Mr Kim as Donald Trump did. During Mr Biden’s visit to South Korea, a reporter asked the president if he had a message for Mr Kim. His reply was a short “Hello. Period.” Mr Biden seems determined to contain North Korea while leaving the door open for diplomacy when the time is right.
mr. Kim may not speak to Washington, Seoul or Tokyo right now. But if he accepts help from Beijing, the United States and its allies must find a way to work with China because of their shared interest in curbing a viral outbreak among North Korea’s vulnerable population — and re-engage Pyongyang. nuclear negotiations. If not, the United States risks being barred from a rare political opening.
In the throes of the deadly famine of the 1990s, North Korea made an unprecedented appeal for international food aid. The resulting aid from the United States and others helped bring the country to the nuclear negotiating table. The Covid moment in North Korea may present a similar opportunity.
Jean H. Lee (@newsjean) opened The Associated Press’s Pyongyang office in 2012 and made dozens of reporting trips to North Korea from 2008 to 2017. She is a co-host of the BBC World Service’s podcast “Lazarus Heist” and a scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington.
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