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North Korea mobilizes the military to distribute medicine during COVID outbreak

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Before last Thursday, North Korea claimed that it didn't have a single case of COVID-19. Now the country is battling what it claims is its first outbreak. North Korea has ignored foreign offers of help and has continued testing ballistic missiles. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us now from Seoul. Hey, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So North Korea is saying that it has 1.7 million so-called fever patients. What's a fever patient?

KUHN: Well, they're not saying they have COVID patients. They're not saying they have suspected cases. They're saying fever patients because they don't have adequate facilities to test all these people who are showing symptoms, much less those who aren't showing symptoms. And for the past two years, North Korea has been testing a few hundred people a day out of a population of 24 million and reporting these cases to the World Health Organization and claiming they have no COVID cases. But experts have doubted this, partially because they've had other outbreaks that they've not admitted before. Now when they say they have an outbreak, nobody seems to doubt them. Their cases have soared with nearly 230,000 new cases or, as they say, fever patients on Tuesday. And in response, North Korea's government has declared a nationwide emergency, a lockdown, and it's mobilized the military to distribute medicine. And leader Kim Jong Un has criticized his own officials for doing a poor job of crisis management and for letting the virus into the country at all.

MARTIN: So, I mean, what is the state of North Korea's health care system? Does it have anywhere near the capacity it needs to deal with an outbreak?

KUHN: Well, North Korean officials have, in past, admitted that they're not well-equipped to handle a major outbreak. If you go to North Korean hospitals in some rural areas, they lack basic equipment like ventilators and even basics like electricity and running water. And on top of all this, some 40% of North Korea's population suffers from malnutrition. That said, they also have some strengths. If you talk to people who have worked in North Korea, they say the doctors there are well-trained and capable. They also have cold storage facilities. They've taken donations of vaccines which they can store. And they've shown in previous outbreaks that they can mobilize people to get shots into folks' arms pretty quickly.

MARTIN: So North Korea has turned down offers of vaccines and other assistance all along, since the pandemic started. Why?

KUHN: That's right. Well, before this outbreak, North Korea had refused offers of millions of vaccines coming from the U.N.-backed COVAX initiative. Since the outbreak, China and South Korea have both offered vaccines and medical assistance, and North Korea has not responded - or at least not publicly. We don't know exactly why that is. There is speculation that they don't trust the drugs, or they don't want to be seen to be depending on outside help. There's another problem, which is that international aid donors are concerned that if they make donations to North Korea, they could be diverted to somehow help North Korea's nuclear programs. And so they want to monitor distribution of that aid. And North Korea finds that intrusive. They don't like it. I spoke to Kee Park, who is a neurosurgeon and lecturer at Harvard who has worked in North Korea. And he told me that he hopes both sides will just let the aid in. Let's hear him now.

KEE PARK: I just hope that international organizations are able to not use this fear of diversion as a reason to make things much more complicated than they need to be and at the same time, the North Koreans be willing to be somewhat more transparent.

KUHN: So he's saying, basically, that requests to monitor the distribution of aid should not prompt North Korea to reject donations.

MARTIN: NPR's Anthony Kuhn, reporting from Seoul. Thank you.

KUHN: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.