The World Health Organization (WHO) has said it is working to ship COVID-19 medical supplies into North Korea.
In a monitoring report this week, the WHO said it had 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 move is a possible sign that North Korea is easing one of the world’s strictest pandemic border closures in order to receive outside help.
Describing its anti-virus campaign as a matter of “national existence,” North Korea had severely restricted cross-border traffic and trade for the past two years despite the strain on its already crippled economy.
In August, United Nations human rights investigators asked the North Korean government to clarify allegations that it ordered troops to shoot on sight any trespassers who crossed its borders in violation of its pandemic closing.
North Korea has yet to report a single case of COVID-19. But outside experts doubt the country could have escaped an illness that has touched nearly every other place in the world.
Authorities in Pyongyang have told the WHO it has tested 40,700 people for the coronavirus up until 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 healthcare workers.
Experts say an epidemic in North Korea could be devastating, considering its poor healthcare system and chronic lack of medical supplies.
But despite implementing severe border controls, North Korea has not shown the same kind of urgency for vaccines.
The United Nations Children’s Fund or UNICEF, which procures and delivers vaccines on behalf of the UN-backed COVAX distribution programme, said last month that North Korea proposed its allotment of about three million shots be sent to severely affected countries instead.
The vaccines on offer were developed by China’s Sinovac.
Analysts say North Korea could be uneasy about international monitoring requirements that would be attached to the vaccines it receives from the outside world.
Some also said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has domestic political motivations to tighten the country’s self-imposed lockdown as he tries to solidify his grip on power while navigating perhaps his toughest moment after nearly 10 years of rule.
Others said North Korea may also be angling to receive more effective jabs amid questions about the Sinovac vaccine’s effectiveness.
UNICEF said the North Korean health ministry has said it will continue to communicate with COVAX over future vaccines.