People wear masks as they ride on a public bus in Pyongyang, North Korea, Feb. 26, 2020.
People wear masks as they ride on a public bus in Pyongyang, North Korea, Feb. 26, 2020.

WASHINGTON - Doctors without Borders, the international medical aid group, can now send medical supplies to North Korea where the government is on high alert in an attempt to remain free of the coronavirus, despite its proximity to China and South Korea.

The U.N. Sanctions Committee on North Korea approved Doctors without Borders, or Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), to send supplies to North Korea, according to the committee’s website.

The approval letter signed by Christoph Heusgen, the chair of the committee and the German ambassador to the U.N., allows the aid group to “engage in humanitarian activities” in North Korea by providing the country’s Ministry of Public Health “with essential Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and diagnostic items.”

Approved items include goggles, thermometers, and stethoscopes, and kits to diagnose whether people with flu-like symptoms of COVID-19 have actually contracted the virus.  The exemption is in effect from February 20 to August 20.  

Kee Park, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School who has worked on medical projects in North Korea many times, welcomed the exemptions at a time of a global health emergency.

“This is a good sign,” said Park.  “They’re speeding things up as quickly as possible. It’s within days that the approval comes through the Sanctions Committee. And nongovernment organizations [NGOs] can go ahead and start making arrangements to send the supplies in.”  

Members from an emergency anti-epidemic headquarters in Mangyongdae District, disinfect a tramcar of Songsan Tram Station to…

Members from an emergency anti-epidemic headquarters in Mangyongdae District, disinfect a tramcar of Songsan Tram Station to prevent new coronavirus infection in Pyongyang, North Korea, Feb. 26, 2020.

North Korea is maintaining an elevated level of alert, ordering the public to follow guidance from the state’s central public health authorities with “absolute obedience.”

We should bear in mind any moment of complacency could result in irreversible catastrophic consequences and should maintain a high state of alert,” said North Korea’s official newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun on Wednesday.

“[All] should show absolute obedience to unified guidance by the makeshift central public health committee and state measures.”  

Fear of the virus spreading into North Korea from neighboring China, where the epidemic began in the city of Wuhan, has prompted Pyongyang to act quickly. It sealed off the border it shares with China and suspended all transportation links to China in early February.

 

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Under normal conditions, many North Koreans and Chinese cross the border each day, making North Korea susceptible to the coronavirus. China has the highest number of confirmed cases, 76,190, and deaths, 2,800 according to WHO as of Wednesday.

In North Korea's neighbor of South Korea, officials reported 169 new virus cases Wednesday, bringing the total number of confirmed infections there to 1,261. Just last week, that number was only 30. Twelve coronavirus patients in South Korea have died.

 

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North Korea, with a poor medical system, is considered to be lacking in supplies needed to diagnose and treat patients if they contracted the virus.

The committee granted another exemption to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) this week to help North Korea fight the virus. 

International aid organizations are required to obtain exemptions from the committee because sanctions placed on North Korea since 2016 ban and restrict goods from freely entering and exiting the country to bar its exports and imports from aiding its nuclear weapons program.

Harvard’s Park, who last worked in North Korea in November, 2019 and has been calling for a temporary waiver of sanctions, said such a process of seeking an exemption could be frustrating, especially under the exigencies of a global health threat like the coronavirus.

“These are not security threatening supplies. These are not going toward the nuclear weapons program or missile program,” said Park.  “These are medical diagnostic kits, personal protective equipment.”   

According to Joshua Stanton, a Washington-based attorney who helped draft the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement and Policy Enforcement Act in 2016, the committee wants to be cautious about sending supplies because North Korea has a history of misusing them.

“The U.N. and U.S. sanctions contain multiple humanitarian exemptions for medicines and medical supplies,” said Stanton. “But Pyongyang’s long and well-known history of corruption, diversion, and misuse of humanitarian aid forces us to be careful about what aid we provide and how it is distributed.”

Stanton thinks U.N. and U.S. sanctions administrators should designate a “whitelist” of safe items and “graylist” of potential dual-use items. “

U.N. and U.S. sanctions administrators should expand a "whitelist" of items that are not restricted by sanctions, that can help control the epidemic, and that do not pose dual-use risks of being turned against us as weapons,” said Stanton.  

He continued, “We can also create a ‘graylist’ of potential dual-use items that we should be willing to provide if we can verify that they are only used for humanitarian purposes.”

Stanton added, “I hope and expect that the U.S. and U.N. will act quickly to approve all appropriate exemptions.”

Park expects there should be “an increase in humanitarian goods [sent] overall over time” to North Korea as aid organizations obtain sanction exemptions.  

Once the supplies including diagnostic kits arrive in North Korea, Park said North Korean medical care professionals should have the skills to run “confirmatory testing for viral infections” on machines that he believes they already have.

“I think constant communication is vital, coordination of efforts to bring things in and speed things up,” Park added.   

Christy Lee contributed to this report from VOA’s Korean Service.