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US ‘Deeply Concerned’ North Koreans Vulnerable to Coronavirus

State Commission of Quality Management staff in protective gear and wielding disinfectant prepare to check the health of travelers arriving from abroad at the Pyongyang Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea, Feb. 1, 2020.

The United States says it is “deeply concerned” about North Koreans’ vulnerability to a new coronavirus and says it backs international groups trying to help Pyongyang prevent a possible outbreak.

“We strongly support and encourage the work of U.S. and international aid and health organizations to counter and contain the spread of coronavirus in the DPRK,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said late Thursday.

“The United States is ready and prepared to expeditiously facilitate the approval of assistance from these organizations,” she added.

The statement potentially paves the way for aid groups to deliver emergency medical supplies to North Korea, though the timeline is still uncertain because the groups must first obtain exemptions from the United Nations.

North Korea has not yet reported a case of the virus. But if the disease, also known as Covid-19, does reach North Korea, experts warn of a humanitarian disaster.

North Korea lacks proper medical supplies and infrastructure to deal with an outbreak. Many of its regions are poverty stricken.

A technician works in a laboratory that manufactures testing kits for the new coronavirus at the medical laboratory company Da An Gene Co in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China, Jan. 28, 2020.
A technician works in a laboratory that manufactures testing kits for the new coronavirus at the medical laboratory company Da An Gene Co in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China, Jan. 28, 2020.

‘Must act now’

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies this week said North Korea urgently needs coronavirus testing kits and personal protective gear.

The IFRC told VOA’s Korea Service it is seeking swift exemptions from U.N. sanctions, given the gravity of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We must act now,” the group said.

North Korea is under U.S. and United Nations sanctions because of its nuclear weapons program. The sanctions prohibit a wide range of cooperation with the North, meaning aid groups wanting to help must first obtain exemptions.

The U.N. committee that handles those exemptions told VOA’s Korea Service earlier this week that it will consider those requests “as expeditiously as possible.”

Delay possible

But experts warn the aid may not begin flowing right away.

Kee Park, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, says the exemptions process is cumbersome.

“When facing a potential public health emergency, asking for permission to deliver medical supplies is absurd,” said Park, who frequently participates in medical exchange trips to North Korea.

Instead, Park says the U.N. should proactively offer a special waiver that would allow aid groups to procure and send emergency supplies to North Korea as soon as possible.

Daniel Wertz, a program manager at the Washington-based National Committee on North Korea, agrees that the exemptions process can be complex and time-consuming. But Wertz says he welcomes the State Department announcement.

“It is also sensible for the U.S. not to rhetorically tie its support for a potential humanitarian response to expectations about getting back to the negotiating table. Supporting the lives and health of the North Korean people is a worthwhile objective in itself,” Wertz said.

No North Korean request

So far, North Korea is not believed to have formally invited aid groups to help combat the virus.

Instead, North Korea has closed off virtually all links to the outside world, halting flights and train services with its neighbors and implementing a 30-day quarantine for all arriving foreigners.

North Korean state media have called the virus prevention effort a matter of “national survival.” The lockdown could also hurt North Korea’s economy, which is heavily dependent on both formal and informal trade with China.