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North Korea Bungles COVID-19, then Blames the South

Members of North Korean army supply medicines to residents at a pharmacy amid fears over COVID-19, in Pyongyang, May 18, 2022. (Reuters)
Members of North Korean army supply medicines to residents at a pharmacy amid fears over COVID-19, in Pyongyang, May 18, 2022. (Reuters)
Kim Yo-jong

Kim Yo-jong

North Korean official

“We come to draw a conclusion that we can no longer overlook the uninterrupted influx of rubbish from South Korea.”


On August 11, Kim Yo-jong, a North Korean official and the younger sister of leader Kim Jong-un, delivered a speech claiming the country achieved an “epoch-making miracle of defusing the unprecedented health crisis” of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The speech came as Kim Jong-un declared “victory” over COVID-19 and ordered easing of quarantine measures for three months. Kim Yo-jong noted that her brother had suffered from a “fever,” then went on to attack the country’s democratic sibling to the south.

South Korea, she said, had spread COVID-19 in her country by flying in infected objects across the border – leaflets, banknotes, booklets, and the like.

“We come to draw a conclusion that we can no longer overlook the uninterrupted influx of rubbish from South Korea,” Kim Yo-jong said.

That is misleading.

In fact, multiple reports suggest the pandemic entered North Korea from China. Moreover, Pyongyang’s isolationist policies and dilapidated health care system arguably made things worse once the virus did take hold.

All along, North Korea had problems with transparency about COVID-19.

Back in May, North Korea reported 4.8 million “fever cases” among its 26 million people but only acknowledged a fraction of the cases were COVID-19.

In June, North Korean officials suggested the coronavirus came from defectors in South Korea who sent balloons northward carrying such things as medical supplies, including masks.

That is far-fetched. People mainly catch the virus by standing near an infected person who coughs sneezes or talks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Because of the sanctions the United States imposed on North Korea for its nuclear weapons and missile program, Pyongyang relies on China for food and fertilizer imports.

North Korea closed its border with China in January 2020 in response to COVID-19. The closure rocked North Korea’s already anemic economy, since China is the country's biggest export market.

National Public Radio (NPR) reported on August 11 that experts believe COVID-19 spread into North Korea in January when it “briefly reopened its border with China to freight traffic.”

The Associated Press reported on July 7 that the virus may have spread internally when North Koreans traveled to Pyongyang in April to join a massive public celebration marking the 110th birth anniversary of the country’s founder, the late Kim Il-sung.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, North Korea’s health measures followed a strict isolationist policy, shutting down borders and banning entry to anyone who tested positive for COVID-19, rather than vaccinating its people,

North Korea is reportedly one of only two countries that hasn’t instituted COVID-19 vaccinations.

According to New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), North Koreans don’t have access to a vaccine, and many are chronically malnourished, which weakens their immune system.

“Medicines of any kind are scarce in the country, and the health care infrastructure is extremely fragile, lacking medical supplies such as oxygen and other COVID-19 therapeutics,” HRW said.

In September 2021, Pyongyang rejected 3 million COVID-19 vaccine doses and asked to direct the shots to harder-hit nations. Chinese-made Sinovac shots were offered to North Korea under the COVAX program, the global project to share COVID-19 vaccines.

Earlier, in July 2021, North Korea rejected 2 million AstraZeneca shots, citing concerns over possible side effects. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country also offered Pyongyang its Sputnik vaccine.

In May, U.S. President Joe Biden said his administration offered COVID-19 vaccines to North Korea and China but did not receive a response.

"[North Korea] has refused to cooperate with COVAX and rejected offers of COVID-19 assistance from the ROK [South Korea]," a senior Biden administration official told CNN.

In October 2021, North Korea’s government halted all imports of staple foods and other necessities from China on the dubious pretext that COVID-19 can spread through migratory birds and animals, snow and “yellow dust” blowing in from China, HRW said.

Reuters reported in May that because of its under-resourced health care system, North Korea ranked last in the world in terms of its ability to respond to and limit the spread of an epidemic.

“Chronic issues plague the country’s health care system, including under-investment in infrastructure, medical personnel, equipment and medicine, irregular power supplies, and inadequate water and sanitation facilities,” Tomas Ojea Quintana, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for human rights in North Korea, told the U.N. Human Rights Council in March.