North Korea Declines 3 Million COVID Vaccines, Says They Should Go to Other Nations

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has declined 3 million Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine shots offered to the country by UNICEF through the COVAX distribution program, the Associated Press reported. North Korea proposed that the vaccines should be distributed to countries more severely affected by the virus.

North Korea was also supposed to receive a now delayed delivery of 1.9 million AstraZeneca vaccine shots through the COVAX program, the AP reported. The AstraZeneca shots would have been able to vaccinate only 7.3 percent of North Korea's population of 26 million, or 950,000.

Some experts speculate that North Korea may want to bypass certain vaccines in favor of others, as the effectiveness of the Sinovac shot has been questioned and there have been rare occurrences of blood clots in people who received AstraZeneca's vaccine, the AP said. However, the country's Health Ministry said it would still correspond with COVAX in the future regarding vaccines, according to UNICEF.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

North Korea Declines Vaccines
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has declined 3 million vaccine shots offered to his country by UNICEF, saying they should go to other countries. Above, Kim delivers a speech during a Politburo meeting in Pyongyang on Thursday. Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

Kim previously called for North Koreans to brace for prolonged COVID-19 restrictions, indicating the nation's borders would stay closed despite worsening economic and food conditions. Since the start of the pandemic, North Korea has used tough quarantines and border closures to prevent outbreaks, though its claim to be entirely virus-free is widely doubted.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Seoul's Ewha Womans University, said North Korea is likely angling to receive more effective jabs from COVAX and then strategically allocate them domestically.

"Pyongyang appears to have issues with COVAX involving legal responsibility and distribution reporting requirements. So it might procure vaccines from China to deliver to border regions and soldiers while allocating COVAX shots to less sensitive populations," Easley said.

"The Kim regime likely wants the most safe and effective vaccine for the elite, but administering Pfizer would require upgraded cold chain capability in Pyongyang and at least discreet discussions with the United States. The Johnson & Johnson option could also be useful to North Korea given that vaccine's portability and one-shot regimen," he said.

In a recent U.N. report on the North's human rights situation, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asked North Korea to "take all necessary measures, including through international cooperation and assistance, to provide access to COVID-19 vaccines for all persons, without discrimination."

He also asked North Korea to form a plan to enable diplomats and aid workers to return to the North and revive humanitarian aid distribution systems as soon as possible in conjunction with its COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

After their meeting in Seoul last month, Sung Kim, the top U.S. diplomat on North Korea affairs, and his South Korean counterpart, Noh Kyu-duk, told reporters that they discussed humanitarian cooperation with North Korea in providing anti-virus resources, sanitation and safe water.

Sinovac Vaccine Vials
Vials of China's Sinovac vaccine, produced by the Egyptian company VACSERA, in Cairo on Wednesday. Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images