(Bloomberg) -- While North Korea is reporting hundreds of thousands of “fever cases” a day, several international aid organizations say they’ve not heard from Pyongyang seeking Covid-19 help to combat one of the country’s worst crises in years.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has declared a state of emergency and mobilized troops to head off the spread of what the state calls a “malicious” epidemic, but there have been no signs his regime has or will reach out to the outside world for aid, according to six international organizations that have in the past provided humanitarian and medical assistance.
Pyongyang, however, appears to have sent airplanes to China, its biggest benefactor, in the past few days to pick up medical supplies, NK News and Yonhap News Agency reported, but there are no signs United Nations agencies that have been in the country for decades, such as the World Health Organization and World Food Programme, are about to resume operations.
Lee Jusung, general secretary of Korea NGO Council for Cooperation with North Korea, a coalition of 65 local non-governmental organizations, said Pyongyang has yet to request aid, Covid-19 vaccines or drug treatments. Hong Sang-young, general secretary of Korea Sharing Movement, a Seoul-based NGO that has provided disaster relief aid, said North Korea has not requested any assistance whether via direct or indirect routes.
Allowing foreign aid workers into the country brings risks for Kim, because their arrival could be seen as a sign his government has lost control of virus management, which could raise questions at home about his rule.
North Korea has also been “silent” when offered Covid-19 aid from the US, Kim Tae-hyo, South Korea’s first deputy national security adviser, said in a briefing Wednesday. Pyongyang has yet to respond to a letter offering assistance sent Monday, according to the Unification Ministry, which oversees inter-Korean issues.
North Korea’s state media reported Wednesday the “fever” has infected about 1.7 million people and killed 62 in the past few weeks. It has avoided using the word “Covid” to describe the rising wave of infections, likely because the state doesn’t have enough testing kits to confirm the cases were caused by the coronavirus.
North Korea has reported on natural disasters in the past, which helped spur humanitarian relief, even when its economy was facing international punishment for its military provocations.
But Choi Jung-hun, who worked as an infectious disease specialist in North Korea and defected to South Korea in 2012, says Pyongyang is only now disclosing the cases to allay fears over a noticeable wave of infections, and to solidify Kim’s leadership.
“It’s an internal purpose to ease tensions,” Choi said. “They will for the next week to 10 days keep putting out soaring caseloads, and then begin reporting lower numbers to make it look like it was Kim’s achievement.”
Kim Jong Un Blames ‘Irresponsible’ Officials for Covid Outbreak
Kim has also blamed “irresponsible” officials for failing to execute his public health orders and has held daily emergency meetings, which have been broadcast on state TV.
‘No Formal Requests’
The lack of requests for assistance is worrisome to health officials who say the spreading cases indicate the country may be facing a public health crisis that could overwhelm its antiquated medical system. The country is even more vulnerable after it has consistently rejected offers of vaccines. Estimates from the United Nations’ food aid agency said about 40% of its population is undernourished, which could magnify the impact of the virus.
Gavi’s Covax, the World Health Organization-backed group that supplies vaccines to countries based on need, has previously allocated doses to North Korea, which rejected them, a Gavi spokesperson said in an email.
Covax “has always been ready to support Pyongyang should it request our assistance,” the spokesperson said, adding “so far, no formal requests for Covid-19 vaccines have been received.”
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