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Asia Minute: North Korea’s vaccine plans are unclear now that it says COVID is in the country

Virus Outbreak North Korea 051322 Kim Jong Un wearing a face mask
Shuji Kajiyama/AP
A passerby walks past a screen displaying an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wearing a face mask on a TV news program in Tokyo, Friday, May 13, 2022. North Korea imposed a nationwide lockdown Thursday to control its first acknowledged COVID-19 outbreak after holding for more than two years to a widely doubted claim of a perfect record keeping out the virus that has spread to nearly every place in the world. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

COVID cases are increasing in parts of the world, including Hawaiʻi. Now even North Korea admits the virus has made it into the country. But now attention is shifting to a different issue: how to deal with it.

Back in December 2020, South Korea’s Foreign Minister said what many were thinking when he observed it was “hard to believe” there were no COVID-19 cases in North Korea — a remark government officials in Pyongyang immediately called “impudent.”

Kim Jong-un covid meeting may 2022
In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, top, visits state emergency epidemic prevention headquarters in North Korea, Thursday, May 12, 2022. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. Korean language watermark on image as provided by source reads: "KCNA" which is the abbreviation for Korean Central News Agency. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

It’s hard to know much of anything about North Korea with certainty, but media coverage in South Korea speculates the current publicity may be a prelude to seeking international help — especially with vaccines.

The World Health Organization’s vaccine-sharing mechanism is called COVAX.

North Korea has repeatedly turned down vaccine donations from that group.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki pointed that out Thursday, and said the U.S. has no immediate plans to share vaccines with North Korea.

In March, Covax offered more than 8 million doses to the country — which were declined.

While China is the closest thing North Korea has to an ally, Pyongyang is reported not to be interested in Chinese COVID vaccines — which have proven less effective than others.

South Korea’s Joong Ang Daily reports the North Korean Ambassador to the U.N. asked what kind of vaccines that group might send to Pyongyang.

It quotes a source as saying, “He is said to have asked if it was going to be Pfizer or Moderna.”

Bill Dorman has been the news director at Hawaiʻi Public Radio since 2011.
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