North won't accept Covid medicines from South or U.S., defector says
Ryu Hyun-woo, a North Korean defector who formerly served as Pyongyang’s acting ambassador to Kuwait, said Tuesday that the North’s pride will get in the way of asking Seoul or Washington for help containing the Covid-19 outbreak.
In an exclusive phone interview with the JoongAng Ilbo, Ryu, who defected to the South in 2019 after working nearly 20 years in North Korea’s diplomatic service, said Pyongyang will probably receive assistance only from China, Russia and international organizations, no matter how grave the Covid situation becomes.
The only circumstance under which North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would receive help from the South or the United States, Ryu continued, is if he agreed to the North Korea policy of either the Yoon Suk-yeol or Joe Biden administration.
Ryu’s interview comes days after the North’s state media confirmed hundreds of thousands of people reporting Covid-related symptoms, a dramatic about-face from its repeated claims since January 2020 that the country had detected zero cases within its borders.
Sources in China told the JoongAng Ilbo earlier this week that Pyongyang has recently requested emergency medical supplies from Beijing, its closest ally. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, which oversees inter-Korean ties, suggested working-level talks for Covid aid on Sunday, but Pyongyang has remained mum.
During the interview, Ryu offered his analysis on the current situation in North Korea and what he suspects the regime will do next. The following are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What do you think is happening in North Korea right now?
There were many tuberculosis patients when I lived in North Korea. People couldn’t eat well, and they all lived in dire circumstances, which led to the rapid spread. I think the same is happening with the coronavirus right now. [The North Korean government] advised its people to drink willow leaf tea if they come down with the virus, which is preposterous. Their hospitals are underequipped, and they don’t have much in the way of medical supplies. In light of the fact that the [country’s] borders have been closed for two years, North Korean people will probably be under immense stress by now.
Where do you think the virus came from?
China. The Omicron variant probably made way into the North as goods were shipped from the Chinese city of Dandong to the North Korean city of Sinuiju last month.
Do you think the North will accept foreign aid?
When we look back at how Pyongyang handled the 2004 explosion at the Ryongchon railway station and the 2016 floods, North Korean diplomats went out of their way to request help from various countries all over the world immediately after the regime publicized the events. Similarly, the North might have already asked China for help and ordered its diplomats stationed at the United Nations and other international organizations to secure medical supplies.
Will the North accept aid from South Korea or the U.S.?
The North will probably accept aid from only China, Russia and international organizations. Humanitarian aid isn’t subject to sanctions, so the regime may actively inform them about its Covid situation, as it is doing right now. But Pyongyang probably won’t want to directly receive aid from Seoul or Washington. When we consider Pyongyang’s pride, there’s a big chance that the regime will refuse any help from either country unless it agrees with the North Korea policy of the Yoon Suk-yeol or Biden administration.
What medical support does the North need?
The North will want treatments in the form of edible pills, not vaccines. Even the capital of Pyongyang gets only two to three hours of electricity each day. Even if [some other country or organization] supplies the North with freezing and refrigerating equipment, it won’t have the electricity to keep them running, so it’s no use giving them vaccines. It would be like plain water.
The North seems to be going all out to source medicine.
There are reports that North Korea is mobilizing the military to distribute medicines, which probably means they’re giving out the stockpile of drugs they kept for emergency use. [When I worked in the North,] most of the stock was generic drugs and cost about a tenth of the original drugs.
Do you think the North will carry out a nuclear test?
Kim Jong-un fears internal instability the most, so he may want to bring the country together with a nuclear test. External circumstances indicate a perfect timing. The United States is preoccupied with Ukraine, China and Taiwan, and is unable to spare any attention for the North. If I were the North Korean leadership, I would want to make my people proud by conducting a nuclear test and bragging that we’ve completed our nuclear [development program] despite the Covid-19 pandemic, reaching a feat that only big powers such as the United States and China have accomplished.
BY PARK HYUN-JOO, LEE SUNG-EUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]