A former World Health Organization official with extensive experience in Pyongyang is calling for the international community to grant "temporary" sanctions relief to North Korea to help the country fight the coronavirus that has triggered health emergencies in neighboring China and South Korea.
"Now we are facing a crisis, an outbreak of this virus" worldwide, Nagi Shafik, former project manager for WHO in North Korea, told VOA's Korean Service. "I think the natural [thing] for me as a humanitarian person is [to advocate] for temporary exemption quickly."
The virus that originated in Wuhan has killed more than 2,660 and infected more than 77,000 people in China as of Tuesday. South Korea has reported 977 confirmed cases and 12 deaths as of Tuesday, putting the country on high alert.
There are no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in North Korea. But as the countries surrounding North Korea struggle to combat the fast-spreading, deadly virus, Pyongyang has been taking tough measures to keep the coronavirus at bay.
The regime quarantined about 30 foreigners Monday and elevated inspection of all goods arriving from China.
Shafik said North Korea has been taking a tough stance because the regime knows it is especially vulnerable to the epidemic outbreak considering its existing humanitarian needs.
"I think this is a normal reaction because they [are] not well equipped," Shafik said. "It can show you how desperate they are to prevent it, this infection, from coming because it would have a big impact on the situation there."
Kee Park, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School who worked on health care projects in North Korea, has been calling for sanctions exemptions with Shafik. Park said the current system of sanctions that involve a lengthy exemption process is unfit for a crisis such as a potential coronavirus outbreak in North Korea.
"The U.N. sanctions exemption process for humanitarian assistance, including [sending] medical supplies, is not suited for global health emergencies," he said.
"Every humanitarian organization that wants to work in North Korea or is working in North Korea has to get a permission to send even one box of [adhesive bandages] through [the U.N. Security Council Sanctions Committee on North Korea] that works by consensus," Park said.
Sanctions the U.N. Security Council imposed on North Korea starting in 2016 that are designed to curb the regime's nuclear weapons program also restrict and prohibit goods from freely flowing in and out of the country.
Park, who last visited North Korea in November 2019, said the country has an adequate number of health care professionals but lacks the basic supplies for coping with an outbreak of the virus.
"They have a very robust network of health care workers. They have plenty of physicians, nurses, technicians," Park said. As is the case with "other poor countries, they have minimal resources. So their capacity to treat is very, very limited. … I would be very surprised if they have sufficient supplies on hand to handle a surge of patients."
Shafik said supplies, such as laboratory equipment, medicine, goggles, protective gear, and intravenous fluids, should be sent quickly to medical facilities charged with diagnosing and treating patients.
"You have to isolate patients and take samples to examine," Shafik said. "So the least thing [that can be done] is to protect the staff who are dealing with patients [with] protective clothes."
If an outbreak occurs in North Korea before aid organizations have a chance to send supplies, Park said the country could face a potentially deadly situation.
"If [an] outbreak happens this week, you've got all these people that are dying because the death from these kinds of epidemics occur in the countries with the weakest health systems," he said.
"In times of public health emergencies as declared by the WHO, you can clearly see the inadequacies of the current system. In fact, it's downright dangerous. It could be deadly," Park added.
On Monday, the U.N. granted sanctions exemption to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) to provide anti-virus aid to North Korea.
Xavier Castellanos, IFRC's Asia Pacific regional director, said, "We know that there is urgent need of personal protective gear and testing kits, items vital to prepare for a possible outbreak.
"This exemption is a life-saving intervention and an important measure to ensure that sanctions do not bear negative impact on the people of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea," Castellanos said, referring to North Korea by its official name.
Park said if international help increases, North Korea has to allow foreign aid organizations to begin their work immediately, suggesting it perhaps needs to relax the 30-day quarantine on foreigners.
"North Korea has a mandatory 30-day quarantine for anyone entering from outside," he said. "So if there's an outbreak, I think there has to be a discussion between the government and the humanitarian community [asking], 'Could they start working with [North Korea's] Ministry of Public Heath people right away?' "
Another thing North Korea should do is to disclose information about suspected cases to help international aid groups assist the country, Park said.
"One of the things North Korea should be prepared to do if there's a very good type of international cooperation is they have to share all their information," Park said. "They have to be very transparent about all the suspected cases. It goes both ways."
Christy Lee contributed to this report from VOA's Korean Service.