North Korea Has Been Importing Chinese COVID-19 Vaccines Since Early May

North Korea has begun clandestinely importing Chinese COVID-19 vaccines since early May, but sources on both sides of the Sino-Korean border told RFA they were unsure how much vaccine is entering the reclusive country.

The World Health Organization approved the Sinopharm vaccine for emergency use on May 7, allowing the vaccines to be distributed widely in lower income countries, like North Korea, through the COVAX initiative. Shortly after, North Korea began receiving shipments of the vaccine in Sinuiju, North Pyongan province, which lies just across the Yalu River border from China’s Dandong.

“In early May, the COVID-19 vaccine produced in China arrived as an emergency item through the Dandong-Sinuiju Customs Office. I know that the vaccines that came through this time were made by Sinopharm,” a North Pyongan provincial official told RFA’s Korean Service Sunday.

“The vaccines were loaded onto a Chinese refrigerated vehicle and delivered directly to a refrigeration facility in Sinuiju. The authorities kept the whole operation strictly confidential, so it isn’t really clear exactly where they were subsequently transported,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

An official from a trade agency in the province confirmed to RFA that shipments of vaccine have been going through the Dandong-Sinuiju entry point since early May.

“No one knows how much vaccine is being sent over because the state keeps it under wraps… I know that our side didn’t pay foreign currency for the vaccines that came from China last month. Instead, China is providing them for free,” the second source said.

“I don’t know the exact details because the authorities are keeping everything a secret.  I don’t know who will get vaccinated and how much vaccine there is to go around. But people say that the high-ranking officials are not the ones who will be vaccinated,” said the second source.

It is common in North Korea for high-ranking government officials to receive preferential treatment, but a North Korean trade worker living in Dandong told RFA Monday that he had heard that the vaccine shipments are not for the ruling class.

“We know that the high-ranking officials aren’t the ones getting vaccinated, because these were not made in the pharmaceutical company’s headquarters in Beijing, but somewhere in another region of China,” the third source said.

The WHO in June approved a second Chinese COVID-19 vaccine produced by Sinovac, adding to the list of vaccines that can be used in the COVAX initiative

COVAX has already allocated to North Korea nearly 2 million doses of the British-Swedish AstraZeneca vaccine, produced in India.

The first batch of AstraZeneca doses was supposed to have been supplied in May, but a spokesperson for the Global Vaccine Alliance (GAVI) told RFA last month that the specific date of delivery could not be determined, and likely would be pushed back to the second half of the year due to North Korea lacking the necessary technology to effectively transport and store the vaccine.

Outbreak of ‘suspected’ cases

Though North Korea maintains to the international community that it is one of the only countries in the world untouched by COVID-19, sources last month told RFA that authorities are internally keeping a tally of “suspected” cases, numbering in the tens of thousands.

“There are patients suffering from suspected coronavirus symptoms all over the country, and the emergency quarantine command in each region is supervising quarantine and disinfection,” an official in the country’s northwestern North Pyongan province told RFA’s Korean Service May 22.

Since the start of the pandemic in January 2020, North Korea has taken extensive measures to stop COVID-19, including the complete shutdown of the Sino-Korean border and the suspension of all trade with China, lockdowns of entire counties and cities, and a ban on travel between provinces.

Observers immediately doubted the claim, citing North Koreas’ crumbling medical infrastructure, the relative ease by which people could cross the Sino-Korean border, and the secrecy with which Pyongyang conducts its relations with the outside world, even with ally China.

Additionally, RFA reported in April 2020 that the government warned the public through health lectures that COVID-19 had at that time been spreading in three areas of the country, including in the capital Pyongyang.

A survey conducted by the Ministry of Health in March, which compiled data of “suspected coronavirus patients” and those who died from “related symptoms,” revealed some 13,000 cases in North Hamgyong province, the most in the country. Since then, each province has been keeping a tally of suspected cases, according to the North Pyongan official.

The North Pyongan official said that by late May, the suspected case total in North Hamgyong increased by about 4,000, with most of the cases in the provincial capital Chongjin, and Rason, a city within a Special Economic Zone near the Chinese and Russian borders.

“In Rason alone, there were 6,355 suspected cases, 20 of whom died. I heard from a quarantine official that these numbers of ‘suspected cases of respiratory pneumonia symptoms’ are the numbers that were reported by the local quarantine authorities to the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party],” said the fourth source.

Other provinces also had suspected caseloads numbering in the thousands.

“By the end of April there were about 2,400 people who had suspected symptoms, which put authorities here in North Pyongan on alert. About 50 of the patients died… many without being tested for exactly what kind of disease they have,” said the fourth source.

“There were also a lot of patients with suspected coronavirus symptoms in South Pyongan province. In just the city of Pyongsong, there were 400 suspected cases through the end of April and about a dozen of them died,” the fourth source said.

The North Pyongan official said the government is not only striving to limit the spread of the disease, but also the spread of information about the situation.

Authorities threatened to punish those who “cause anxiety” by talking about the virus, saying those with loose lips could be sent to a labor camp for five years, or 10 years if they were the originator of the information, according to the fourth source.

“Actions against the country’s coronavirus quarantine posture are defined as ‘treason that threatens the system’ and because of the stern punishments, residents are wary of each other.”

Another source, from Kangwon province on the east coast, told RFA that through the end of April there were more than 2,000 suspected cases there with an unspecified number of deaths.

The World Health Organization (WHO) in its COVID-19 Weekly Situation Report published May 21 said that a total of 27,446 people were tested for the disease through May 13, with no confirmed cases reported.

Sources told RFA that North Korean authorities are doing everything they can to prevent positive cases from being reported to the WHO.

“Internally, even minor remarks related to the coronavirus are considered very political remarks and are strictly monitored,” the North Pyongan official said.

“When a suspected coronavirus patient appears, the hospital unconditionally must diagnose it as pneumonia without testing for the virus, and they immediately isolate the patient. If a patient dies after showing suspected coronavirus symptoms, they say the cause of death was acute respiratory disease without specifying which disease, and they cremate the body in a hurry.”

W. Courtland Robinson of Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health told RFA in May that there was not enough evidence to conclusively say that North Korea is deliberately hiding positive coronavirus tests from the WHO.

“I know that the government can be deceptive if it chooses to be, whether about COVID or other issues. That said, it is difficult to assess whether the number of suspected cases and deaths as reported by RFA sources is a measure of COVID cases or of other symptoms and illnesses—influenza, respiratory infections, pneumonia, etc.—that may look somewhat like COVID but are not,” he said.

“Whatever the truth is, I do hope that vaccines will be available to the population to provide the protection needed to prevent infection and spread,” Robinson said.

Reported by Hyemin Son, Jeongeun Ji and Myungchul Lee for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong. 

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