Unconditional Covid-19 aid for the North
The author is a columnistat the JoongAng Ilbo.
The Covid-19 situation in North Korea is extremely serious. Although the number of suspected infections has decreased over the past few days, the daily number of “fever” cases, which was 18,000 on May 12, skyrocketed to 392,000 on May 15. Over three days, the number jumped 20-fold.
As of May 17, the North said 62 people had died from their fevers. But taking into account the fact that it takes two to four weeks for an infection to result in death, the number is likely to increase in the near future.
The North is one of only two countries without a Covid-19 vaccination program. The other is Eritrea. Vaccines clearly reduce the overall damage caused by the pandemic, and those who are not vaccinated will likely suffer more serious symptoms. Furthermore, the North’s medical facilities are extremely poor, and the country is short of test kits and face masks, leading to concerns that it will suffer a snowballing crisis.
Until now, many North Korean residents have purchased the over-the-counter medicines at local markets. The North Korean government, however, shut the markets because it was worried about spreading infections. The residents are now blocked from purchasing basic drugs. This is why some raised the possibility that the North Korean regime may collapse due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
And yet, a forecast based on empirical data shows that the projection is not well supported. Although the North’s medical system is extremely poor, the number of deaths won’t likely be large enough to topple the regime. Based on data on unvaccinated people in Hong Kong, Dr. Oh Myoung-don, a specialist in infectious diseases at Seoul National University Hospital, forecasts that about 34,000 will die in the North from Covid. That, of course, does not take into account the fact that Hong Kong medical facilities are far superior to those in the North. The number of pandemic casualties in the North is likely to be higher. Oh said if 30 percent of North residents are infected, about 420,000 need to be hospitalized, and if 70 percent of the population is infected, 700,000 will have to be hospitalized.
That is not serious enough to cause the North Korean regime to collapse. Compared to other countries, the loss is not too serious. Until now, over 1 million have died of Covid-19 in the United States and advanced countries in Europe, such as England, Germany and France, each with over 100,000 deaths. Fatality rates were high in those countries because they were hit by the pandemic early. At the time, the fatality rate was 7.3 percent. But the Omicron variant of Covid-19 is the dominant strain in the North, and its fatality rate is far lower. The rate of death in the North is likely to be low.
As of now, the global fatality rate is 0.25 percent. It is about one-thirtieth the rate during the early stages of the pandemic.
As a controlled society, the North can endure mass casualties and the regime can survive. It did not collapse when up to 3 million people starved due to the serious famine in the late 1990s. There is little possibility that North Korean society will collapse over 100,000 to 200,000 deaths.
I am not saying the North Korean suffering is not serious. It is likely that North Korean authorities will maintain a cruel lockdown policy, similar to China’s zero-infection policy. Farmers won’t be able to plant rice in time, and the country will face famine in the future, in addition to the pandemic. This is why the South Korean government must actively contact the North to support pandemic control measures.
There are many options. Three types of aid can be offered — test kits, vaccines and prevention and treatment goods. According to experts, the most urgent task is offering cures and preventive goods. Some have said vaccine supply will be effective, but it is too late.
It would take at least one month for the vaccines to arrive in the North, taking into consideration negotiation and delivery time. It also takes another two weeks for the vaccines to be effective, so the vaccine assistance program is not that meaningful. The North is short of refrigeration facilities and refrigerated trucks to store and distribute vaccines, so it is questionable if the country will be able to administer them properly. mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna require special freezer facilities, but the North reportedly has none.
The Yoon Suk-yeol administration said its basic stance is to offer pandemic control support to the North, “if the North wants it.” In his budget speech on May 16, the president said “If the North Korean authorities respond, we will not hesitate to offer all possible support, including Covid-19 vaccines, medicines, medical tools and public health manpower.”
Many experts say, however, that unconditional support is a wiser policy in the long term. The condition of “if the North Korean authorities respond” appears to mean an overt request from the Kim Jong-un regime. It seems that the Yoon government will offer support if the Kim regime requests treatments or vaccines. But a veteran expert with much experience in negotiating with the North said there are many ways to aid the North while allowing it to save face. This would include offering aid packages through international organizations such as the United Nations. If the government offers financial and material support earmarked for the North through the World Health Organization, it will be able to help the North without making much noise, he said.
There is nothing we can do if the North refuses to accept. It has rejected the international community’s vaccine offer, enough to inoculate 8.11 million people. But the situation has become extremely urgent, so there is a possibility that the North may accept the aid if we quietly negotiate and confirm Pyongyang’s intention to accept the package.
The biggest challenge in inter-Korean relations currently is restarting dialogue, which has been frozen for years. Only after that will we be able to accomplish anything, such as denuclearization talks or inter-Korean exchanges. It is unrealistic to think that the North Korean regime will fall due to the pandemic. It is also absurd for some to argue that vaccine supply should be linked to denuclearization measures. It is wise to offer humanitarian help to the North to at least start dialogue.
There are many precedents, about 10 past cases of direct or indirect assistance. During the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009, the South offered 16.7 billion won in addition to 500,000 doses of Tamiflu antiviral drugs. It won’t be the first time for the South to give vaccines and treatments to North Korea.
Experts also said communication between medical professionals from the two Koreas, in addition to political dialogue, is crucial and would have a significant impact. It will be a great help to the North Korean doctors if the South shares its Covid-19 experience and knowhow.