SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - North Korea this week reported a mysterious “grave incident” that suggested a major lapse related to its coronavirus response.
Its leader, Kim Jong Un, recently acknowledged food shortages, comparing the situation to a devastating 1990s famine.
The North now acknowledges on a regular basis that it faces a worsening pandemic-related crisis, even as it continues to claim it is free of COVID-19.
Just how severe a crisis is unknown because North Korea has shut itself off from the outside world in an all-encompassing 17-month coronavirus lockdown.
What is increasingly clear, though, is that North Korea is dragging its feet on accepting the international vaccines that offer the best way out of its predicament.
North Korea has done little to advance the process to receive vaccines from COVAX, the United Nations-backed program meant to ensure fair global vaccine distribution.
Negotiations between North Korea and Gavi, a vaccine alliance that helps run COVAX, have stalled for months, with North Korea completing only two of the seven required administrative steps, according to a source familiar with the talks.
“If the DPRK had been swift with the paperwork, they would have gotten some vaccines. It’s hard to say how much, but if they complied with the request from Gavi we would be well underway now,” said the source, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussion, using the abbreviation for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
In a statement, Gavi did not comment on the status of the negotiations.
“Work is ongoing and discussions continue with DPRK,” a Gavi spokesperson said. “As we get closer to a potential delivery, we’ll be able to share more information on timetables.”
Gavi announced in March that it planned to distribute 1.7 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to North Korea by May.
Several barriers have delayed the shipment, though, including North Korean concerns about the safety and efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine, reluctance to sign a liability waiver in case of side effects, and refusal to allow international workers into the country to facilitate the shipment.
Global supply shortages are also to blame. India, a major producer of the AstraZeneca vaccine, earlier this year suspended vaccine exports amid its own explosion in COVID-19 cases.
North Korea appears to see the vaccine shortage as a main obstacle. In a May statement to the World Health Organization, North Korea accused countries of selfishly hoarding vaccine supplies, creating a “bottleneck” in global production.
A big hurdle is North Korea's antiquated and uneven health care system, which limits its ability to handle many types of COVID-19 vaccines.
The country does not have a consistent electricity supply, much less the network of ultra-cold refrigerators and specialized delivery trucks needed to handle vaccines such as those produced by Pfizer and Moderna, which utilize advanced mRNA technology.
According to the source familiar with the talks, North Korea has not yet accepted international offers to help upgrade its cold supply chain network.
That means Pyongyang may be forced to choose between the AstraZeneca vaccine, or those made in China or Russia, all of which can be stored at higher temperatures. It is not clear whether North Korea has considered the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which also does not require super cold storage.
At a briefing last week, a Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson refused to say whether China has provided any vaccines to North Korea, saying only Beijing was prepared to help “should there be such a need.”
China's foreign ministry on whether it has provided any COVID-19 help to North Korea: pic.twitter.com/Re6F4K9jxP— William Gallo (@GalloVOA) June 30, 2021
The Russian vaccine, Sputnik V, has also not been delivered to North Korea, according to an April report in the state-run TASS news agency, which quoted Russian Embassy officials in Pyongyang.
Another problem is North Korea’s severe lockdown, which has prevented virtually any foreigners from entering the country.
According to the source who spoke with VOA, North Korea is refusing to allow international aid workers into the country to help facilitate the shipment, ostensibly because of fears about outsiders bringing COVID-19 into the country.
However, Gavi procedures require that international staff must be present, the source said. Gavi “won’t just ship it,” the source said.
United Nations agencies’ employees, who might have been able to help with the vaccine shipment, have left North Korea amid worsening lockdown conditions.
Will it change anytime soon?
It does not seem that North Korea will retreat from its hunkered-down position anytime soon. Kim has repeatedly warned of a “prolonged” lockdown, saying his country must maintain “perfect” anti-epidemic measures.
Many officials and diplomats in the region now privately concede that it may be years before North Korea reopens to many foreigners.
However, some analysts speculate that North Korea may have been hinting at a different pandemic approach this week when it acknowledged a “grave incident” in its pandemic stance.
Kim did not say what the lapse was, but he lambasted senior officials during a politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party, even replacing several of them, presumably over the situation.
The move could amount to North Korea laying the groundwork for eventually accepting international help, said Ramon Pacheco-Pardo, a Korea expert at King’s College London.
“The insistence on this being an international crisis, plus now admitting that this is affecting North Korea, as well, opens the door to international cooperation,” Pacheco-Pardo said.
Rachel Minyoung Lee, a Seoul-based Korea specialist at the Stimson Center, though, questioned that conclusion.
“If North Korea wants to accept vaccines it can just do so,” she said. “Convening a politburo meeting to do that seems unnecessarily convoluted,” she added.
Meanwhile, North Korea appears to be managing expectations at home. In a May editorial, the state-run Rodong Sinmun warned of a long battle against the virus, adding the vaccines produced overseas were “no universal panacea.”