Pedestrians wear face masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Wednesday, April 1, 2020, in Pyongyang, North Korea…
Pedestrians wear face masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 1, 2020.

WASHINGTON - North Korea’s decision to protect itself from the coronavirus by sealing its borders and evicting foreigners, coupled with prioritizing its nuclear and missile tests over citizens’ health, may be self-defeating as humanitarian groups find anti-virus aid efforts thwarted.

A Swiss aid agency has decided to temporarily suspend the shipment of much-needed medical supplies in the coronavirus fight because of the absence of the staff in Pyongyang monitoring the use of assistance.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Switzerland’s federal aid agency under its Department of Foreign Affairs, temporarily closed its office in Pyongyang on March 9 due to restrictive containment measures imposed by the North that hampered its activities in the country. It had provided humanitarian assistance to North Korea since 1995.

“In these circumstances, the monitoring of the delivery and the use of assistance cannot be fully assured,” said a Swiss Foreign Ministry official in an email statement sent to VOA’s Korean Service on Tuesday.  “The delivery of the material is therefore suspended until adequate presence and monitoring arrangements can be reestablished.”

Although Pyongyang has not reported any confirmed cases of COVID-19, speculation persists that the virus has established itself in North Korea because of the long porous border it shares with China where the coronavirus emerged late last year.

The Swiss agency had planned to deliver 2,000 sets of personal protective equipment (PPE) to help North Korea fight the coronavirus.

The Swiss Foreign Ministry said it will resume humanitarian work “as soon as conditions in the DPRK return [to] normal.”

The DPRK stands for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Self-defeating isolation   

In an effort to fight the coronavirus, the regime sealed its borders in February barring foreigners from entering the country and forced foreign diplomats and aid workers to leave after placing them under strict quarantine orders along with thousands of its own citizens.

North Korea also ordered strict measures to inspect and quarantine goods coming through its ports and borders in February.  It is uncertain whether the quarantine placed on goods has been relaxed, but the entry ban on foreigners appears to continue.

North Korea has not reported a single confirmed case of COVID-19 since the virus emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December.  But the regime has been taking aggressive measures since early February to shield itself from a possible outbreak in the country.

The Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s official newspaper, said Tuesday that “punishment will follow if state guidelines are violated."

North Korea is vulnerable to the fast-moving virus, which can be fatal, because it shares a porous border with China. As of Thursday, there were more than 1 million confirmed cases worldwide and more than 50,000 fatalities.

The Swiss Foreign Ministry official said North Korea asked for help soon after the outbreak of the virus in China, requesting chlorite production devices manufactured in Switzerland as well as generators and protective gear needed for disinfection.

More missile tests

While seeking international help with the virus, North Korea has conducted four missile tests in March, raising doubts over how much of its resources the regime is directing to diagnosing and treating people who may be infected.

In a phone interview with VOA’s Korean Service, Ted Yoho, the Republican congressman from the state of Florida in the U.S., said, “They’ve got resources to spend on military equipment, but they are not using [resources] appropriately for the coronavirus.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offering U.S. help for North Korea to fight the virus. Last week North Korea said Kim had received the letter but it is not known when it was sent.

Offices at the Pyongchon District People's Hospital are disinfected, in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 1, 2020.

Yoho said, “We know what President Trump has offered are masks, ventilators, medicines” and personal protective equipment.

But North Korea has not given a concrete reply to Trump’s offer of help.

Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s sister, rather than the leader himself, only welcomed the letter as “a good judgment and proper action.”

"In the letter, he also explained his plan to propel the relations between the two countries of the DPRK and the U.S. and expressed his intent to render cooperation in the anti-epidemic work, saying that he was impressed by the efforts made by the Chairman to defend his people from the serious threat of the epidemic." 

She also said it is not good to make a “hasty conclusion” that a close relationship between Trump and Kim could lead to improved relations between the two countries.

Relations between Washington and Pyongyang have been at a standstill since nuclear negotiations stalled in October at working-level talks in Stockholm.

Impact on TB patients

An additional concern in North Korea is that its efforts to further isolate itself to fend off the coronavirus puts its citizens with tuberculosis at great risk.

There are about 131,000 cases of tuberculosis in North Korea, according to a 2017 World Health Organization (WHO) report.

The border and ports closings coupled with the forced departures of aid workers could mean medical supplies and treatments needed by TB patients are delayed, or never delivered.

“This already worrisome situation will become even more grave if diagnosis and treatment for TB is interrupted,” said an official with Doctors Without Borders.

The coronavirus poses a particular threat to TB patients.

Peter Sands, executive director of the Global Fund that provide financial support to fight tuberculosis in North Korea, said, “While we are still learning about COVID-19, evidence suggests that people with TB will be among the most vulnerable.”

Some aid delivered

Some aid groups, however, have been able to send anti-virus supplies to North Korea.

Doctors Without Borders, or Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), told VOA Korean on Monday that a shipment of supplies arrived in the Chinese border town of Dandong en route to Pyongyang.

“The full cargo of medical supplies donated by MSF – including masks, gloves, goggles, hand hygiene products and antibiotics – have now arrived in DPRK,” said an official for MSF.  “MSF was advised by the DPRK authorities that the cargo left Dandong to Pyongyang on the morning of the 28th of March.”

The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) also said aid supplies arrived in North Korea.

“The supplies of PPE, plus gloves, masks (both surgical and N95) and infra-red thermometers are in [DPRK] and will be sent to the Ministry of Public Health in Pyongyang,” Shima Islam, regional communication specialist for UNICEF in East Asia and the Pacific, said Monday.

According to data from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) posted Wednesday, the World Health Organization allocated $900,000 to support North Korea’s fight against the coronavirus. The money will be made available through the U.N. Central Emergency Response Fund.

Lack of transparency

Even as aid is delivered, however, it is uncertain how the supplies will help North Korea fend off the virus if foreigners are kept away and international aid workers and medical professionals in the country are denied full access.

Allowing aid workers to diagnose and treat potential cases throughout the country is vital because COVID-19 spreads so quickly.

It is also unclear how fast aid that reaches North Korea will be dispensed outside Pyongyang, the capital that is home to the nation’s elite.

Reporters Without Borders, or Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), is calling on Pyongyang to become transparent about its coronavirus reporting so that the international community can provide the help North Korea needs.

In a statement released Wednesday, RSF said “As North Korea still reports ‘zero’ coronavirus cases despite evidence suggesting cases in the thousands, RSF exhorts the regime to allow international media to investigate on the topic.”

Christy Lee contributed to this story.