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Chinese medical experts in North Korea to advise on COVID response

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 in both countries told RFA.

Though North Korea has been reluctant to ask for foreign help during the pandemic, Pyongyang specifically requested that China send a team of experts for guidance, a North Korea-related 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 requested help in the fight against the spread of COVID-19 across the country, especially around the Pyongyang area,” he said.

The Chinese experts will work closely with North Korea’s National Emergency Quarantine Command, hoping to pass on practical knowledge and expertise in dealing with the virus. They will also train North Korean medical personnel.

“So far, China has provided supplies like COVID-19 test kits, protective shields, and vaccines to North Korea. In the future, China will also provide support for production technologies and facilities that can produce diagnostic kits,” said the source.

North Korea last year rejected 3 million doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine last September, saying that other countries needed them more. The vaccines the source was referring to are not confirmation that North Korea has begun officially accepting vaccines from China.

Sources have told RFA that doses for elite members of society have made their way to Pyongyang in small amounts.

For more than two years, North Korea denied that any of its citizens had contracted the coronavirus. This month, Pyongyang finally announced its first cases and deaths, saying the Omicron variant had begun to spread among participants of 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 been isolating 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 increased drastically in Pyongyang, the Central Committee of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party requested urgent assistance from China, a resident of Pyongyang told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“They asked for China to provide medical equipment such as COVID-19 vaccines, test 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 help with biological research,” he said.

The government established a bio-research center to fight COVID-19, but it hasn’t produced any results yet due to a lack of overseas knowledge.

“China agreed to help with our request. The medical staff and technicians came to Pyongyang last week and have been conducting technical training at the National Academy of Science Bio research center located in Pyongyang,” he said.

North Korea’s state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported on May 14 that the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, ordered researchers to learn from China’s quarantine achievements and experiences.

“The Chinese government is willing to support and strengthen cooperation with North Korea during the COVID-19 response,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

About 2.9 million people have been hit by outbreaks of fever, 68 of whom have died, according to data based on reports from North Korean state media published by 38 North, a site that provides analysis on the country and is run by the U.S.-based think tank the Stimson Center. Around 2.5 million are reported to have made recoveries, while 400,200 are undergoing treatment.

The country has only a handful of confirmed COVID-19 cases, which 38 North attributed to insufficient testing capabilities. Data published on the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center showed North Korea with only one confirmed COVID-19 case and six deaths as of Tuesday evening.

Tuesday marked the first day that no new deaths were recorded since North Korea declared the emergency on May 12, the state-run Korea Central News Agency reported.

“In a few days after the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system was activated, the nation-wide morbidity and mortality rates have drastically decreased and the number of recovered persons increased, resulting in effectively curbing and controlling the spread of the pandemic disease and maintaining the clearly stable situation,” KCNA said.

Reuters reported that many analysts doubt the accuracy of the statement, citing the difficulty of assessing the true scale of the virus’ spread throughout the country.

Translated by Claire Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.