“Like any other data from North Korea, the figures are up to debate, and we cannot fully trust them,” said Ahn Kyung-su, who operates the Seoul-based DPRKHealth.org, a website and network of public health experts who study North Korea. “But what’s clear is that North Korea has the Covid phenomenon, and by publicizing those figures, North Korea appears to be sending out signals that it is finally ready to accept Covid-related aid from the outside.”

So far, North Korea has not accepted any Covid-19 vaccine donations from world health organizations. South Korean officials hope that humanitarian shipments, including vaccines, could help restart diplomatic dialogue between North Korea and the United States and allies.

The danger posed by the Covid outbreak is greater in North Korea than in most other nations because most of its people are unvaccinated. In addition, the outbreak could increase the strain on the economy, which already has been hit by years of U.N. sanctions and North Korea’s decision two years ago to close its border with China, its only major trading partner.

“North Koreans are chronically malnourished and unvaccinated, there are barely any medicines left in the country, and the health infrastructure is incapable to deal with this pandemic,” said Lina Yoon, senior Korea researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The international community should offer medicine for Covid-19 related symptoms, Covid-19 treating anti-viral medicines, and provide vaccines and all necessary infrastructure for vaccine preservation, including fridges, generators and gasoline.”

Hours after admitting to the outbreak on Thursday, North Korea launched three ballistic missiles from near Pyongyang toward the sea off its east coast. It was the North’s 16th missile test this year.

In South Korea, the government of the newly inaugurated president, Yoon Suk-yeol, condemned the test as a “grave threat” and “provocation,” and accused the North of “duplicity” for testing weapons while its people were threatened by the coronavirus. But it said it was willing to ship vaccines, therapeutics and other humanitarian aid to the North.

In Washington, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said that “the United States does not currently have plans to share vaccines” with North Korea. She said the country was “continuing to exploit its own citizens” through its policy of not accepting humanitarian aid during the pandemic.



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