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In the news: North Korea, sanctions, and the coronavirus

The country charts near the bottom of epidemic preparedness rankings.

A trolley bus is disinfected amid fears over the spread of the novel coronavirus in Pyongyang, North Korea, on February 22, 2020.
A trolley bus is disinfected amid fears over the spread of the novel coronavirus in Pyongyang, North Korea, on February 22, 2020. (Kyodo/REUTERS)

The Red Cross says it has received an exemption from UN sanctions to deliver coronavirus aid to North Korea, which has reported zero Covid-19 cases despite being sandwiched between outbreak areas.

The UN committee overseeing sanctions to North Korea granted the aid exemption to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the IFRC said on Monday.

The potential for an outbreak “poses a threat to millions of people who are already in need of humanitarian assistance”, the organisation said in a statement.

The IFRC intends to ship testing kits, thermometers, and protective medical gear, which are in short supply around the world, according to a committee letter confirming the exemption, which was published by the website NK News.

A handful of aid groups work in North Korea and regularly apply for and receive similar exemptions. Their requests range from the technical to the mundane: US-based SAM Care International, which runs a hospital in Pyongyang, received approval to bring in medical equipment worth nearly $180,000 earlier this month, while the World Food Programme asked for permission to ship 10,000 shovels and pickaxes in January.

But UN agencies and NGOs say the fear of breaking sanctions still makes it difficult to deliver aid and run programmes.

North Korea has not reported any coronavirus cases, even though its neighbours to the north and south are dealing with outbreaks – especially in South Korea, where Covid-19 cases have risen dramatically over the last week:

South Korean media have published unconfirmed reports of coronavirus cases in the north. Radio Free Asia reported last week that a hospital in the northern city of Chongjin had quickly cremated the bodies of 12 people who had died after being treated for pneumonia-like symptoms.

Earlier this month, the US State Department said it is “deeply concerned” that North Koreans could be vulnerable to an outbreak.

Read more → Mapped: Where the coronavirus has spread

North Korea was one of the first countries to close its borders to China when the extent of the coronavirus outbreak emerged in January. The BBC reported on Monday that hundreds of foreigners – mainly diplomats – have been quarantined since January.

Analysts and aid groups say malnutrition and food insecurity are widespread in North Korea, and the country’s underfunded health system struggles to treat diseases like tuberculosis.

North Korea was ranked third-last on the Global Health Security Index, an analysis of countries’ epidemic preparedness published in October by organisations including the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. In a category ranking abilities to rapidly respond to and curtail epidemics, North Korea ranked last.

- Irwin Loy

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