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North Korea to Begin COVID-19 Vaccinations

A pack of AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccines is seen as the country receives its first batch of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines under COVAX scheme, in Accra.

North Korea will receive nearly two-million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine through the World Health Organization’s COVAX program. Despite the country’s limited resources, some medical professionals are confident that the North’s doctors can successfully carry-out a vaccination campaign. But, human rights advocates say Pyongyang’s yearlong border closure has caused a humanitarian disaster.

The COVAX Facility, a multinational program that delivers coronavirus vaccines to middle- and low-income countries, says it will supply North Korea with one point seven million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Kee Park, director of the Korean American Medical Association’s North Korea program, says doctors there have a lot of experience carrying out nationwide vaccination campaigns.

Park explains that AstraZeneca’s version is a good option, because it only needs to be stored at two to eight degrees Celsius, standard refrigeration temperatures that the North has in its medical infrastructure.

Park spoke with VOA News over the phone from Utah.

“They should be able to distribute AstraZeneca vaccine nationwide, and then maintain the cold chain that's required to protect the vaccine from what we call denaturing or just inactivated. So they have the cold chain. So they have the technical know how and the capacity to distribute at least the AstraZeneca vaccine in a nationwide vaccination campaign,” Park said.

Park, a neurosurgeon, says he has worked side by side with North Korean doctors on more than 20 trips to the country.

He says despite the North’s limited resources, medical professionals do the best they can with what they have available.

But Park says international sanctions against Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons program create setbacks for the country’s hospitals.

Even though medical supplies are technically exempt from import bans, Park explains that many aid groups still go through the process of vetting shipments.

And, he says, that slows down public health campaigns.

“These UN agencies just they don't take any chances. They don't want to run afoul of any problems. And they get the exemptions to be fair. But, it creates additional layer of administrative hurdles, work that they get that it has to be put in to get these things delivered,” Park continued.

Pyongyang credits its strict border closure with keeping out the coronavirus.

North Korea says it has no COVID-19 infections - a claim that most outside observers do not believe.

A staff member, left, of the Pongnam Noodle House checks the body temperature of a woman coming into its restaurant in Pyongyang, North Korea, Feb. 5, 2021.
A staff member, left, of the Pongnam Noodle House checks the body temperature of a woman coming into its restaurant in Pyongyang, North Korea, Feb. 5, 2021.

Sokeel Park, who heads the Seoul office of the human rights group Liberty in North Korea, says that during the pandemic, the regime has also enforced new limitations on domestic travel in the name of public health.

“Maybe actually, they've been able to control the pandemic itself with this level of draconian measures, both contact with the outside world and movement inside the country,” Sokeel said.

Sokeel says he is worried Pyongyang will not lift these restrictions even after the pandemic is over.

The border closure has also prevented international aid workers from entering the country and has nearly halted trade with China.

Park says this hurts the poorest North Koreans the most.

“This is creating a massive shortage in all sorts of goods, including basic necessities, we hear from some contacts inside the country that things like soap and toothpaste, and even foodstuffs are in shortage. And so we're very worried about hunger. From what we hear, the last year has been a disaster," Sokeel explained.

Sokeel adds that without international monitors inside North Korea, he is concerned the COVID-19 vaccine will not be distributed fairly.