The World Health Organization’s (W.H.O.) global coronavirus vaccine distribution program has reportedly reserved about 2 million doses for the government of North Korea, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported Thursday, raising questions regarding Pyongyang’s claim that it has yet to see a single case of the disease within its borders.
The apparent confirmation from the COVAX program, designed to help underprivileged and developing nations access doses of the several approved vaccines currently circulating globally, follows a report by the Wall Street Journal in early January claiming the communist government of North Korea had reached out to vaccine distributors seeking to purchase doses.
Dictator Kim Jong-un has repeatedly referred to North Korea’s coronavirus situation as an emergency and launched programs apparently designed to respond to a pandemic, such as the swift announcement of the construction of the Pyongyang General Hospital last year. North Korea reportedly ran out of building supplies this month for the hospital, leaving the construction of the facility in limbo. Kim also sealed the nation’s borders tightly, particularly the border along the Yalu River with China. Chinese authorities also reportedly expanded border patrols to prevent its own epidemic situation from worsening. Yet Kim’s public health officials have not confirmed a single case of the virus in the country.
The revelation that North Korea will receive coronavirus vaccines appeared in a report from COVAX Facility, which is leading the program’s distribution, according to Yonhap. The interim delivery report identified North Korea as the destination for 1.992 million doses of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, manufactured in India. As each person requires two doses to be immunized to the full extent the vaccine allows, this amount will be enough for about 1 million people. North Korea has a population of about 25 million. Pyongyang, the capital, which is off-limits to individuals either considered disloyal to the regime or related to someone considered disloyal to the regime, has about 3 million people.
The COVAX revelation appears to confirm a Wall Street Journal report in January citing an anonymous source familiar with the working of Gavi, the organization leading COVAX. The report claimed North Korean officials had formally submitted a request to be part of COVAX distribution, meaning the government was interested in receiving doses of a coronavirus vaccine. The report also claimed North Korean diplomats had secretly begun approaching counterparts in Europe, asking if purchasing locally made vaccines was possible. The report raised eyebrows at the time for the same reason the COVAX confirmation did today: North Korea insists it has no documented evidence of the presence of the Chinese coronavirus anywhere in the country.
The use of COVAX also suggests that the government of China, North Korea’s closest ally and partner in the technically ongoing Korean War, has not offered Pyongyang a favorable agreement for the purchase of its main Chinese coronavirus vaccine candidate, “Coronavac,” by the Chinese firm Sinovac. While dictator Xi Jinping claimed China would make its vaccine a global public good, in reality, Beijing has been selling the vaccine to willing purchasers and encouraging developing nations to take out predatory loans with China to be used for buying them.
Coronavac is one of the least effective vaccines approved by several state powers; researchers confirmed it to be about 50 percent effective last month. Chinese state media outlets declared it “good enough,” despite competitors by American companies Pfizer and Moderna being upwards of 90 percent effective.
North Korea continued to boast in its state media organs of tremendous effort spent on fighting “epidemics,” without specifying the Chinese coronavirus as the culprit pathogen or acknowledging any cases of coronavirus disease.
“The central emergency anti-epidemic sector is concentrating its efforts on enclosing the territorial land, waters and airspace with strong anti-epidemic walls against the inroads of the vicious virus,” the state’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Wednesday, “and tightening discipline and order in all units and fields to make sure that all the people thoroughly observe the anti-epidemic measures taken by the Party and the state.”
Part of fighting the “vicious virus,” the outlet reported, was a “positive ideological campaign,” presumably consisting of communist indoctrination. The news service added that “health education,” including teaching citizens tips for fighting contagious disease, was part of the campaign.
Wednesday’s report echoed the language regularly appearing in KCNA and the Rodong Sinmun, the state newspaper, for months since the pandemic left China in early 2020. Kim Jong-un personally ordered his underlings to “intensify the anti-epidemic work” in November, “for the security of the state and the well-being of the people.” He did not specify the nature of the work he had ordered, but used the occasion to thank North Koreans for not contracting the virus.
“Thank you for your good health, with nobody having fallen victim to the malignant virus,” Kim said at the time.