N Korea seeks outside help to raise virus testing

Pyongyang has secretly asked for international help to increase coronavirus testing in North Korea as the pandemic threatens to cripple its fragile health system.

After news of the epidemic emerged from Wuhan in January, North Korea immediately closed its borders, and officials did not report any confirmed cases of coronavirus. And this despite the deadly disease that has ravaged neighboring China and South Korea in the past three months. In China alone, there are more than 81,000 confirmed cases and nearly 3,300 deaths.

At the national level, state propagandists have continued to promote juche – the fundamental doctrine of autonomy developed by Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong Un, the current leader.

But in private communications, authorities have quietly asked for help from their international contacts in the past few weeks, according to several people familiar with the case and a document seen by the Financial Times.

International experts are wary of claims of zero infection, especially given the uncertainty surrounding Pyongyang’s ability to accurately test the virus.

But at least 590 people were tested, all arriving from abroad in January and having returned negative results, according to a person directly aware of the situation in North Korea.

“The government has test kits for Covid-19 and they know how to use them, but [the number of kits are] not enough, therefore, [officials are] ask all organizations. . . to support them in this regard, “said one of the people involved.

North Korean officials did not immediately respond to questions.

Up to 10,000 people have been quarantined in North Korea in the past two months, according to North Korean media. International health experts believe that authorities have treated anyone with symptoms of Covid-19 with extreme caution, given the country’s particular vulnerability to an epidemic.

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Organizations supporting Pyongyang’s efforts include the World Health Organization, the International Federation of the Red Cross, Unicef ​​and Doctors Without Borders, as well as Russia and China.

Deliveries of medical equipment, however, experienced long delays.

Most international groups have been trying to get waivers from the UN sanctions to allow legal shipments to North Korea, but the process takes several weeks.

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged that exemptions from sanctions be granted “for broad and practical effect, with prompt and flexible authorization for essential medical equipment and supplies”.

Bachelet added: “It is vital to avoid the collapse of any country’s medical system – given the explosive impact that will have on death, suffering and wider contagion.”

Keith Luse, executive director of the National Committee on North Korea, a Washington-based nonprofit, said another “unintended consequence” of the sanctions was that the international financial institutions were unwilling to help to transfer funds to North Korea, even when the money was for humanitarian reasons and exempt from sanctions.

Equipment purchases have also been slow, compounded by increased demand and export restrictions in most other countries, said another NGO worker involved in North Korea. Other problems have been created by logistical disruptions to shipping, air, road and rail links within China and North Korea.

Luse added that the “potentially devastating” long-term consequences of the coronavirus were still pending.

“Restrictions on the border and movement within North Korea. . . could disrupt preparations for the next planting season, cause food shortages and worsen the underlying humanitarian situation in North Korea, “he said.

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