A Chinese delegation of medical experts has arrived in Pyongyang to advise North Korea on strategies to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been spreading rapidly over the past month, sources from both countries told RFA.
Although North Korea has been reluctant to seek foreign aid during the pandemic, Pyongyang specifically requested China to send a team of experts to guide, a North Korea-linked source in Beijing told RFA’s Korean service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“Last week, 13 medical officials, doctors and medical technicians left Beijing for Pyongyang, and they are currently staying at the National Academy of Sciences in Pyongyang’s Unjong district,” the source said on Sunday.
“North Korea asked for help in fighting the spread of COVID-19 across the country, especially in the Pyongyang region,” he said.
The Chinese experts will work closely with North Korea’s National Emergency Quarantine Command to share practical knowledge and expertise on how to deal with the virus. They will also train North Korean medical personnel.
“So far, China has provided North Korea with supplies such as COVID-19 test kits, protective shields and vaccines. In the future, China will also support production technologies and facilities that can produce diagnostic kits,” the source said.
North Korea refused 3 million doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine last September, saying other countries need them more. The vaccines the source was referring to are not confirmation that North Korea has started officially accepting vaccines from China.
Sources have told RFA that doses for elite members of society have found their way to Pyongyang in small quantities.
North Korea has denied for more than two years that any of its citizens have contracted the coronavirus. This month, Pyongyang finally announced its first cases and deaths and said the Omicron variant had begun to spread among participants in a large-scale military parade in late April.
The country declared a “maximum emergency” but the situation has worsened as nearly 3 million people have reported having symptoms of the virus. The government has isolated suspected patients, but the country’s healthcare system is woefully underdeveloped and ill-prepared to withstand the shocks of a major pandemic.
As COVID-19 cases surged in Pyongyang, the ruling Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee asked for urgent help from China, a Pyongyang resident told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
“They asked China to provide medical equipment such as COVID-19 vaccines, testing kits, and protective clothing and face shields,” said the second source.
“While the medical equipment is being brought to Pyongyang, the Central Committee has also requested China’s help in releasing technology needed to support biological research,” he said.
The government has set up a bio-research center to combat COVID-19, but it has yet to produce any results due to a lack of knowledge abroad.
“China agreed to help with our request. The medical staff and technicians came to Pyongyang last week and conducted technical training at the Bioresearch Center of the National Academy of Sciences in Pyongyang,” he said.
North Korea’s state enterprise Rodong Sinmun The newspaper reported on May 14 that the country’s leader Kim Jong Un ordered researchers to learn from China’s quarantine successes and experiences.
“The Chinese government stands ready to support and strengthen cooperation with North Korea during the COVID-19 response,” said a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman.
About 2.9 million people have been struck by fever outbreaks, 68 of whom have died, according to data based on North Korean state media reports released by 38 north, a website providing analysis about the country and operated by US-based think tank Stimson Center. Around 2.5 million are said to have recovered, while 400,200 are on treatment.
The country has only a handful of confirmed COVID-19 cases, which 38 north due to insufficient testing facilities. Data released at Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center showed North Korea with just one confirmed COVID-19 case and six deaths as of Tuesday night.
Tuesday was the first day that there were no new deaths since North Korea declared a state of emergency on May 12, the state-run Korea Central News Agency reported.
“In a few days after the activation of the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system, the nationwide morbidity and mortality rates have dropped drastically and the number of recovered people has increased, leading to effective disease containment and containment steeringling the spread of the pandemic and maintaining the clearly stable locationsaid KCNA.
Reuters reported that many analysts questioned the veracity of the statement, citing the difficulty in assessing the true extent of the spread of the virus across the country.
Translated by Claire Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.