For more than two years, isolated North Korea claimed success in keeping out Covid and even rebuffed multiple offers of vaccines, calling them unnecessary. Last month, that changed. In a series of urgent dispatches, North Korea’s state media announced that an unspecified fever was spreading “explosively.”
The nation went into lockdown. More than four million cases have been reported, with dozens of deaths, The New York Times writes. It’s a frightening prospect for an unvaccinated, nation of 25 million people. But why admit a Covid outbreak now?
First of all, don’t believe for a second that Covid only just appeared in North Korea. The virus was circulating in China — which had extensive cross-border trade with North Korea and regular flights between Beijing and Pyongyang — for weeks before North Korea sealed its borders in late January 2020.
Neither should we put too much stock in North Korea’s more recent claims of success in battling the outbreak. Covid is likely “getting worse, not better,” Michael Ryan, the emergencies director for the World Health Organization, said last week. The W.H.O. has expressed concern about an unchecked spread among unvaccinated North Koreans.
It could be that cases were rising so rapidly in the capital, Pyongyang, that the outbreak had to be acknowledged. But there is likely also an element of political timing involved in announcing the outbreak just before a recent trip by Mr. Biden to South Korea and Japan.
Mr. Kim may be pursuing a dual-track strategy. The missile launches maintain tension with the United States and South Korea — which helps him to justify building up his nuclear arsenal, putting him in a stronger position for any future standoffs or negotiations.
And the Covid confession serves as a face-saving way to secure humanitarian help and other goods from Beijing — which is always concerned about its neighbor devolving into crisis — after Mr. Kim rejected China’s previous offers of vaccines. Just days after announcing the outbreak, North Korea reportedly sent three cargo planes to Shenyang, China, to pick up emergency supplies. More arrived recently by rail. It may be receiving Chinese vaccines already.
Help is surely needed. North Koreans have suffered chronic food shortages and most hospitals and clinics do not have heat, medicine or supplies. Hand-drawn posters suggest eating two bulbs of raw garlic, drinking liquor fortified with an egg and sliced ginseng or sipping tepid water with sliced spring onions and sugar to ward off colds and the flu.
Mr. Kim may not be speaking now to Washington, Seoul or Tokyo. But if he is accepting help from Beijing, the United States and its allies must find a way to work with China over their shared interest in curbing a viral outbreak among the vulnerable North Korean population — and re-engaging Pyongyang in nuclear negotiations. If not, the United States risks being excluded from a rare political opening.
In the throes of its deadly 1990s famine, North Korea made an unprecedented appeal for international food aid. Resulting assistance from the United States and others helped bring the country to the nuclear negotiating table. North Korea’s Covid moment may present a similar opportunity.