WHO Shipping COVID Medical Supplies to North Korea Even as Country Insists It Has 0 Cases

The World Health Organization (WHO) has begun sending COVID-19 medical supplies to North Korea, even though the country has not reported a single coronavirus case, the Associated Press reported.

WHO North Korea representative Edwin Salvador said that North Korea allowed the WHO and other United Nations agencies to send supplies, including emergency health kits and medicine.

"Consequently, we have been able to transport some of our items by ship to Nampo...[including] emergency health kits, medicines and medical supplies that would support essential health services at primary health care centers," Salvador told the AP. "We are informed that WHO items along with supplies sent by other U.N. agencies are currently still under quarantine at the seaport."

Experts doubt that the country has not experienced the pandemic. The country described its anti-virus campaign as a matter of "national existence" and has severely restricted border traffic and trade for the past two years, the AP said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Coronavirus in North Korea
The World Health Organization is starting to send COVID-19 medical supplies to North Korea. Above, students at the Pyongyang Jang Chol Gu University of Commerce receive hand sanitiser before entering the campus on August 11. KIM WON JIN/AFP via Getty Images

WHO said in a weekly monitoring report that it has started the shipment of essential COVID-19 medical supplies through the Chinese port of Dalian for "strategic stockpiling and further dispatch" to North Korea.

The North has told WHO that it has tested 40,700 people for the coronavirus through September 23 and that all the tests were negative. Those tested in the last week reported included 94 people with influenza-like illnesses or other symptoms and 573 health care workers, according to the WHO report.

Experts say an epidemic in North Korea could be devastating, considering its poor health care system and chronic lack of medical supplies.

But despite implementing severe border controls, North Korea hasn't shown the same kind of urgency for vaccines even as its mass immunization campaign continues to be delayed amid global shortages.

Analysts say North Korea could be uneasy about international monitoring requirements that would be attached to the vaccines it receives from the outside world. There are also views that leader Kim Jong Un has domestic political motivations to tighten the country's self-imposed lockdown as he calls for unity and tries to solidify his grip on power while navigating perhaps his toughest moment after nearly a decade of rule.

Salvador said the WHO is continuing to work with North Korean officials so that they complete the technical requirements for receiving vaccines through the U.N.-backed COVAX distribution program. He said the North has developed a national deployment plan to use as a reference when it begins its vaccine rollout.

The latest WHO report came weeks after Kim during a ruling party meeting ordered officials to wage a tougher anti-virus campaign in "our style" after he turned down some foreign COVID-19 vaccines offered via COVAX.

UNICEF, which procures and delivers vaccines on behalf of the COVAX distribution program, said last month that North Korea proposed its allotment of about 3 million Sinovac shots be sent to severely affected countries instead.

Some analysts say the North is angling to receive more effective jabs amid questions about the Sinovac vaccine's effectiveness.

UNICEF said North Korea's Health Ministry said it will continue to communicate with COVAX over future vaccines.

North Korea COVID Supplies
Staff at the Pyongyang Department Store No. 1 disinfect the premises to help curb the spread of the coronavirus on December 28, 2020. Jon Chol Jin/AP Photo