North Korea seeks international help to raise virus testing

Pyongyang has secretly asked for international help to increase coronavirus testing in North Korea as the pandemic threatens to cripple its fragile healthcare system.

After reports of the outbreak emerged from Wuhan in January, North Korea immediately shut its borders and its officials have not reported any confirmed cases of coronavirus. This is despite the deadly disease sweeping through neighbouring China and South Korea over the past three months. In China alone, there are more than 81,000 confirmed cases and almost 3,300 deaths.

Domestically, the state’s propagandists have continued to promote juche — the core doctrine of self-reliance developed by Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong Un, the current leader.

But in private communications, officials have quietly sought urgent help from their international contacts over the past few weeks, according to several people familiar with the matter and a document seen by the Financial Times.

International experts are wary of the claims of zero infections, particularly given uncertainty surrounding Pyongyang’s capacity to test accurately for the virus.

But at least 590 people have been tested, all of whom had arrived from overseas in January and returned negative results, according to one person directly familiar with the situation inside North Korea.

“The government has testing kits for Covid-19 and they know how to use them, but [the number of kits are] not sufficient, hence, [officials are] requesting all organisations . . . to support them in this regard,” said one of the people involved.

North Korean officials did not immediately respond to questions.

As many as 10,000 people have been quarantined inside North Korea over the past two months, according to North Korean state media reports. International health experts believe that officials treated any person showing Covid-19 symptoms with extreme caution, given the country’s particular vulnerability to an outbreak.

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Organisations supporting Pyongyang’s efforts include the World Health Organization, the International Federation of Red Cross, Unicef and Médecins Sans Frontières, as well as Russia and China.

Deliveries of medical equipment have, however, faced long delays.

Most international groups have tried to obtain UN sanctions waivers to allow for legal shipments into North Korea but the process takes several weeks.

Michelle Bachelet, UN high commissioner for human rights, urged exemptions to sanctions measures to be given “broad and practical effect, with prompt, flexible authorisation for essential medical equipment and supplies”.

Ms Bachelet added: “It is vital to avoid the collapse of any country’s medical system — given the explosive impact that will have on death, suffering and wider contagion.”

Keith Luse, executive director of the National Committee on North Korea, a Washington-based non-profit organisation, said another “unintended consequence” of sanctions had been that international financial institutions were unwilling to help transfer funds into North Korea, even when the money was for humanitarian reasons and exempt from sanctions.

Procurement of equipment has also been slow, complicated by surging demand and export restrictions in most other countries, another NGO worker involved in North Korea said. Further problems have been created by logistical disruptions to sea, air, road and rail links both inside China and into North Korea.

Mr Luse added that “potentially devastating” long-term consequences from coronavirus still loomed.

“Restrictions at the border and on movement within North Korea . . . could disrupt preparations for the upcoming planting season, lead to food shortages and otherwise exacerbate the underlying humanitarian situation in North Korea,” he said.

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