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Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
The UN panel overseeing sanctions enforcement in North Korea will allow the World Health Organization (WHO) to bring medical equipment into the DPRK for “prevention and control” of the coronavirus, a note posted on a UN website said Thursday.
The announcement comes as the number of new cases of the virus — officially known as COVID-19 — continues to rise around the world, including more each day in neighboring China and South Korea.
Unverified reports of coronavirus infections and deaths in North Korea have circulated for weeks, though Pyongyang has refrained from reporting any cases in the country so far.
Thursday’s UN announcement said that the WHO was seeking to transfer “diagnostic equipment and commodities for prevention and control of COVID-19 in the DPRK, aimed to enhance the diagnostics capacity in the country.”
The purpose, it said, would be to ensure “timely treatment of patients and prevention of spread of COVID-19 virus among the vulnerable population of the DPRK.”
The exemption is the third granted so far to an aid group seeking to help the North manage a potential coronavirus outbreak, which experts say could lead to a public health crisis in the ill-prepared country.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, was granted its own exemption last week to bring equipment into the DPRK for diagnosing and managing the coronavirus.
This week, too, the UN granted the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) permission to bring medical supplies into the country.
The UN Security Council (UNSC) prohibits the export of a wide range of goods into North Korea and aid groups typically must apply for humanitarian sanctions exemptions before bringing medical equipment into the DPRK because some supplies may contain banned materials like metal.
More details are expected in the coming days about the WHO’s sanctions exemption and what specific medical equipment and supplies it plans to bring into the DPRK. Requests for further information by NK News went unanswered.
Experts fear that an outbreak of coronavirus infections in North Korea would wreak havoc on the country and its ill-equipped healthcare system.
A major public health study published last year by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) found that the DPRK was the least-prepared country in the world for dealing with “rapid response and mitigation of the spread of an epidemic.”
At a Congressional hearing on Tuesday this week, Sue Mi Terry, a former U.S. intelligence official, said the DPRK’s weak healthcare system was considered by the intelligence community to be a potential source of instability in the country.
“It’s nonexistent,” she told a panel of Senators. “If there are patients with coronavirus, I think this is a significant potential problem in North Korea.”
On Wednesday, the UN’s top envoy for human rights in North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, urged Pyongyang to allow experts into the country to help.
“The outside world should be prepared to respond, and the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea should allow full and unimpeded access to medical experts and humanitarian actors, and relax restrictions on access to information,” he said.
Russia’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday that it had shipped 1,500 kits for “rapid” diagnosis of the coronavirus into the DPRK, with the U.S. State Department saying earlier this month that it was “ready and prepared to expeditiously facilitate the approval” of more sanctions exemptions for aid groups.
Pyongyang has also reportedly taken numerous steps of its own in an apparent effort to block the coronavirus from crossing into DPRK’s territory.
After the South Korean defense minister visited Washington this week, U.S. Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado, said that the coronavirus had “apparently affected” military exercises in the North.
The DPRK has shut its borders and implemented strict quarantines, according to reports, and Russia’s ambassador to North Korea said staff at his country’s embassy are no longer “allowed to walk in the city.”
NK News‘s sister site NK Pro reported earlier on Thursday that several European embassies and missions in the DPRK would be temporarily closing their offices because of the quarantine.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
The UN panel overseeing sanctions enforcement in North Korea will allow the World Health Organization (WHO) to bring medical equipment into the DPRK for "prevention and control" of the coronavirus, a note posted on a UN website said Thursday.
The announcement comes as the number of new cases of the virus -- officially known as COVID-19 -- continues to rise around the world, including more each day in neighboring China and South Korea.