North Korea’s rejection of nearly three million doses of a Chinese-made coronavirus vaccine this week might be an attempt by leader Kim Jong Un to use the pandemic to consolidate power, experts told RFA.
UNICEF on Wednesday said that Pyongyang conveyed that the doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine offered under the COVAX program should be given to countries more in need, maintaining the widely doubted claim that North Korea is virus-free.
“With North Korea needing something like 60 million or more doses of a two-shot regiment to inoculate its population, the DPRK should take any shots it can get,” Harry Kazianis, senior director of the Washington-based Center for National Interest think tank told RFA’s Korean Service.
“So, this move, to be very frank, makes zero sense. The only logical explanation is that the Kim regime truly does have doubts about the current vaccines, or he likes the amount of control locking the country down gives him and, for the time being, is leveraging the crisis to gain even more power over the population and the [ruling] Korean Workers Party,” he said.
North Korea has not reported a single confirmed case of coronavirus among its population of 25.6 million, but according to previous RFA reports, it keeps unofficial records of “suspected cases,” and if these patients die, they are quickly cremated before COVID-19 can be confirmed as the cause of death.
Pyongyang outwardly maintains it is untouched by the virus due to its extensive measures against COVID-19’s spread, including the closure of the Sino-Korean border and suspension of all trade with China since Jan. 2020.
However, it has admitted to citizens in public lectures that the virus was spreading in geographically distant areas of the country as early as mid-2020.
Reuters news agency reported that the Seoul-based Institute for National Security Strategy attributed the refusal of the three million Sinovac doses, to Pyongyang’s concern over their efficacy, saying that it is more interested in vaccines made in Russia.
Impending health crisis
Kazianis said North Korea would become a ticking timebomb if it did not vaccinate its population as soon as possible.
“Unless they have a cure for COVID they are hiding, they need vaccines. Otherwise, they are only welcoming disaster sometime in the future,” he said.
The reallocation of the vaccines might be a foreign policy gesture by North Korea, Gilbert Burnham, founder of the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at Johns Hopkins University told RFA.
“Sealing the borders has been stated as a measure to prevent entry of the COVID-19 virus, but it is unlikely that this will be successful in the long term. The DPRK health system is unlikely to be strong enough to handle a large number of people with COVID-19 if an epidemic breaks out,” said Gilbert.
Gilbert said the reallocation could have been done “with the intention of showing the world that DPRK COVID-19 containment strategies were successful in containing the virus, so the people of the DPRK do not need immunization.”
Gilbert acknowledged that there were concerns about the Sinovac vaccines but said that North Korea definitely needs to immunize its population.
“Eventually the virus will make it to the DPRK and with a poorly nourished population having many other health problems—the outlook for the people of the DPRK could be catastrophic. It is in everyone’s interest to see and help the DPRK population get immunized with whatever effective vaccine is on hand, and not argue which vaccine has a bit more efficacy than another,” he said.
Dr. Edwin Salvador of the World Health Organization (WHO) country office for North Korea told RFA that North Korea was “looking at future opportunities through COVID-19 vaccines through COVAX,” but did not discuss the reallocation.
A UNICEF spokesperson acknowledged the reallocation to RFA, saying that partner agencies were continuing to work with North Korean health authorities “to ensure that the necessary support is provided to the Government to prepare for such an opportunity,” to receive vaccines later.
The spokesperson added that although essential health supplies have been shipped to North Korea in recent weeks, but the international community should “accelerate access for supplies and for international personnel to return to the country at the earliest opportunity,” because much more is needed there.
RFA has reported that citizens in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar were also reluctant to use Chinese-made vaccines for reasons ranging from high levels of anti-Chinese sentiment to distrust of their own government.
Reported by Jeongeun Ji for RFA’s Korean Service.