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North Korea gives Chinese vaccines to soldiers working as construction labor

North Korea has begun promoting a vaccination campaign for soldiers working on a high-priority construction project in the capital Pyongyang, marking the first time the government has administered vaccines in large numbers, sources in the country told RFA.

The country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, promised to build 50,000 new homes for the residents of Pyongyang by the end of 2025, and tens of thousands of soldiers have been mobilized to help with the project.

“They play loud political propaganda messages as the soldiers get injected with the vaccines from China,” a city government official told RFA on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“They are calling it a ‘vaccination of love from the Highest Dignity,’” he said, using an honorific term for Kim Jong Un.

Each brigade of soldiers has set up a field sanitation center. On the morning of May 18th, broadcast vehicles began documenting army doctors dressed in protective gear inoculating the soldiers, according to the source.

“It was like it was a national political event. All of the officials of the construction command came out to the site, and the atmosphere was all serious,” he said.

“The broadcasting car played loudspeaker messages saying, ‘The general secretary has decided to import COVID-19 vaccines in the midst of our nation’s difficult situation. It was repeatedly emphasizing that the vaccines were a gracious gift given to the people from Kim Jong Un,” he said.

North Korea is in a state of “maximum emergency” after acknowledging this month that the virus had begun to spread among participants of a large-scale military parade in late April.

Prior to that, Pyongyang had denied that anyone in the country had contracted COVID-19, even rejecting 3 million doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine last September, saying that other countries needed them more.

‘Long live Kim Jong Un’

Sources have told RFA that doses for elite members of society have made their way to Pyongyang in small amounts, and that a limited number of soldiers stationed at the Chinese border had also been inoculated.

The soldiers in Pyongyang were relieved to learn they would be receiving the vaccine after they heard news that COVID-19 was spreading rapidly in the capital, the source said.

“Some of the soldiers were seen raising their hands and giving praise to Kim Jong Un, shedding tears and shouting ‘Manse!,’” said the source, using a Korean phrase usually said during times of overwhelming emotion that directly translates into English as “10,000 years” but effectively means “long live Kim Jong Un” in this context.  

“The vaccination campaign conducted that day was only for the soldiers, even though others are helping with the 10,000 homes project. Members of the Korean Socialist Women’s League or local residents who ‘volunteered’ for construction were excluded,” he said.

The original plan called for the completion of 10,000 homes in 2021, but the home-building project in the capital fell behind schedule. The government now hopes to meet the target sometime this year and construct an additional 10,000 by the end of the year. 

The rapid spread of the coronavirus could upend those plans. Over the past month the virus’s spread has forced the government to shut down entire cities, including the capital. But for now projects like the one in Pyongyang continue.

Soldiers mobilized for construction in other parts of the country are also in the government’s vaccination plans, a resident of South Hamgyong province, north of Pyongyang, told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“Last week I heard from a friend who works in the medical field that the soldiers who are working on the Ryonpho Greenhouse Farm in Hamju County have received COVID-19 vaccines,” she told RFA Tuesday. “The government is prioritizing soldiers working on national construction projects.

“The greenhouse farm is a national construction project which Kim Jong Un ordered to be completed by Oct. 10… The general secretary attended a groundbreaking ceremony there on February 18th. The soldiers who are fighting the construction battle night and day were prioritized for vaccination against COVID-19 with vaccines imported from China,” she said, using militaristic language that North Korea uses to describe communal work projects and public campaigns.

‘Immortal Potion of Love.’

People are angry that the government is not rolling out the vaccine for them, however.

“They are saying that the government’s behavior is ridiculous. They are only vaccinating soldiers, and they are using images of these soldiers, saying how thrilled they are that the Highest Dignity is giving them a special consideration, as propaganda,” said the second source.

“A broadcast vehicle that appeared at the vaccination site loudly proclaimed the greatness of the general secretary, who prepared for them the ‘Immortal Potion of Love.’ People saw the scenes of the emotional soldiers, singing, weeping and shouting ‘Manse!’ but they looked on emotionless.”

Though North Korea has acknowledged that the virus is spreading inside the country, it has only reported a handful of confirmed COVID-19 cases, which 38 North, a site that provides analysis on the country and is run by the U.S.-based Stimson Center think tank, 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 Thursday evening.

The country is, however, keeping track of numbers of people who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19.

About 3.1 million people have been hit by outbreaks of fever, 68 of whom have died, according to data based on the most recent reports from North Korean state media published by 38 North. Around 2.7 million are reported to have made recoveries, while 323,300 are undergoing treatment.

Washington has offered to give vaccines to North Korea and China, U.S. President Joe Biden announced during a recent visit to Seoul. Neither country has responded to the offer.

North Korea has also ignored a South Korean proposal to cooperate in efforts to combat the pandemic.

Observers say Pyongyang is unlikely to accept humanitarian aid from the international community because it would be an admission of Kim Jong Un’s failure to protect the country from the virus.

Translated by Claire Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.