The U.S. is deeply concerned about the “vulnerability” of the North Korean people to an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, the State Department said Thursday.
In a statement, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus also said that the U.S. is ready to help speed up the approval process for international projects aimed at preventing a potential epidemic in the country.
“The United States is deeply concerned about the vulnerability of the North Korean people to a coronavirus outbreak,” Ortagus said.
“We strongly support and encourage the work of U.S. and international aid and health organizations to counter and contain the spread of coronavirus in the DPRK,” she continued.
“The United States is ready and prepared to expeditiously facilitate the approval of assistance from these organizations,” she added.
Ortagus’s remarks suggest the U.S. may be willing to help speed up the process required for humanitarian organizations to gain exemptions from international sanctions on the DPRK.
That process — first introduced in mid-2018 — was aimed at mitigating the reported impact that sanctions were having on the ability of aid organizations to work in North Korea.
Speaking to NK News this week, multiple humanitarian aid experts and observers said the country remained uniquely vulnerable to an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, due to its dilapidated healthcare system and widespread malnutrition.
North Korea has declared the threat from the novel coronavirus — now officially known as COVID-19 — a “national emergency,” moving to close its borders and institute strict new quarantine rules on foreigners and citizens who have recently traveled abroad.
Premier Kim Jae Ryong was on Wednesday reported to have visited quarantine headquarters in the country’s southwestern provinces, describing the threat from the virus as “an important project related to the national security and the people’s life.”
North Korea is yet to confirm any cases of the virus in its territory, with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Pyongyang earlier in the week telling South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency that it “has not received any report of coronavirus cases from the Ministry of Public Health.”
Others have cast doubt on those claims, however, with unverified reports in South Korean press suggesting some cases had already been detected.
Speaking to VOA on Wednesday, Bir Mandal, an official with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Pyongyang, was quoted as having said the organization was “suspicious” of claims by DPRK authorities that there were no cases in the country.
But the official later denied having made those comments, telling Yonhap on Thursday that the comments were “a result of a hacked FAO Email account in DPRK.”
Speaking to NK News on Friday, Allan Dow, a communications officer with the FAO in Bangkok, said the incident was under investigation.
“As far as I am aware, it was only the one account that was hacked,” he said. “The hacking is under investigation and so there’s nothing further to say at this point.”
“Of course, any reports based on that email are erroneous and should be disregarded.”
Edited by Colin Zwirko