U.S. Fast Tracks Humanitarian Aid to Help North Korea Fight Coronavirus

The United States has fast-tracked assistance to North Korea in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The move comes despite the countries' leaders stalled denuclearization-for-peace talks and amid strict international sanctions. A State Department spokesperson told Newsweek that the U.S. had greenlit the delivery of certain goods to the largely closed-off country in an effort to ensure the country had access to critical supplies.

North Korea remains one of the last nations in the world to not officially report any confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus disease that has infected nearly 2.5 million people globally, but concerns and suspicions remain about how the tightly-curated nation is fairing against the illness.

"In the face of the extraordinary threat to global health and welfare caused by the COVID pandemic, the United States has expeditiously facilitated the approval of assistance from U.S. and international aid and health organizations to counter and contain the spread of coronavirus in the DPRK," the spokesperson said, using an acronym to refer to North Korea's official name.

"Moreover, we've led the UN effort over the last year to expedite processing and approval of exemptions related to humanitarian aid addressing broader health concerns in the DPRK," the spokesperson added. "We have also actively supported and established in the UN sanctions regime related to the DPRK language that allows for humanitarian-related bank transactions."

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People wearing face masks leave after laying flowers before the statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on the occasion of the 108th birthday of late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, known as the "Day of the Sun," in Pyongyang on April 15. Current supreme leader Kim Jong Un was absent for the festivities. KIM WON JIN/AFP/Getty Images

The State Department announced last month that Washington was prepared to provide aid and relax restrictions against trade with North Korea to help Pyongyang battle the pandemic. Earlier this month, the Treasury Department also said April 9 it was working to provide assistance to North Korea.

Just a week earlier, however, Pak Myong Su, director of the anti-epidemic department of North's Central Emergency Anti-epidemic Headquarters confirmed to Agence France-Presse that "not one single person [in North Korea] has been infected with the novel coronavirus in our country so far." Still, reports continue to emerge citing anonymous sources claiming otherwise.

North Korea was among the first countries to implement strict travel restrictions in response to reports late last year of a new pathogen spreading through neighboring China. Rival South Korea was hit hard early on and Russia, which also shares a border with North Korea, was also fighting to contain a COVID-19 outbreak.

In North Korea, thousands have reportedly been released from quarantine, including all the country's foreigners, with the official case toll remaining zero. Stringently measures appear to remain in place, however, with the public asked to keep vigilant against the disease.

On Sunday, the official Korean Central News Agency reported that the country's Non-Permanent Central Public Health Guidance Committee "took measures for further intensifying the state emergency anti-epidemic system till COVID-19 can be checked worldwide." These included a more thorough lockdown on air, sea and land crossings, as well as enhanced monitoring and control measures in a nation already known for the extensive role the government plays in everyday life.

But the country's ruler, usually the center of state media messaging, was noticeably absent during the recent celebration of one of the country's top holidays. North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un did not appear Wednesday as citizens and senior officials gathered to remember his grandfather, the country's founder and first leader, Kim Il Sung.

No images have emerged to determine whether or not the young head of state, the third successive member of his ruling dynasty to lead North Korea, appeared a day earlier during a series of anti-ship and air-to-surface missile drills. Kim did, however, attend aerial assault drills last Sunday, along with consecutive artillery and short-range weapons exercises that have increased in frequency as attempts to establish peace with the U.S. and South Korea failed to make progress.

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North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un walks alongside officials among aircraft of the Korean People's Army Air and Anti-Air Force in this photo shared April 12 by the Korean Central News Agency. North Korea is among a dwindling list of nations still not reporting any coronavirus cases but has stepped up military drills in a bid to maintain a message of deterrence. Korean Central News Agency

President Donald Trump became the first sitting U.S. leader to meet a North Korean supreme leader in 2018 and met twice more with Kim in order to secure an agreement by which Pyongyang would abandon nuclear weapons in exchange for peace, security and sanctions relief. The two sides have so far been unable to come to an agreement, though, and a year-end deadline announced by Kim passed in January.

Kim announced afterward that he no longer felt obliged to honor a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear or longer-range weapons tests but has yet to unveil the "new strategic weapon" he alluded to at the time and smaller-range tests have been met largely with indifference by the Trump administration.

"I don't think it's particularly provocative or threatening to us, as to what happened," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Army General Mark Milley told reporters Tuesday after the latest drills. "It may be tied to some celebrations that are happening inside North Korea, as opposed to any deliberate provocation against us."

Even with the Trump administration's messaging toward Kim ranging from tepid to warm, North Korea said it sought more than good personal ties between the leaders of the two nations in order to advance relations the two countries that technically remain at war. In a letter published last month, Kim Yo Jong, an alternate member of the ruling Korean Workers' Party Central Committee Politburo and sister of the supreme leader, thanked Trump for sending a note to Kim Jong Un offering help in battling the coronavirus.

After the president said Saturday he "received a nice note" from the North Korean ruler, however, Pyongyang quickly denied it in a message that cast suspicion over the intentions behind the apparent error.

"He could have referred to the personal letters that had been exchanged in the past, we are not sure. But there was no letter addressed recently to the U.S. president by the supreme leadership of the DPRK," the News Service for Overseas Distribution of the North Korean Foreign Ministry's Department of Press and Information said Sunday in a statement.

"We are about to look into the matter to see if the U.S. leadership seeks anything in feeding the ungrounded story into the media," it added. "The relations between the top leaders of the DPRK and the U.S. are not an issue to be taken up just for diversion nor should it be misused for meeting selfish purposes."

U.S. Fast Tracks Humanitarian Aid to Help North Korea Fight Coronavirus | World