North Korea’s Kim faces ‘huge dilemma’ over aid as virus surges

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SEOUL, South Korea – For more than a decade as leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un has made “self-reliance” his linchpin, shunning international aid and instead striving to implement put in place national strategies to repair its ailing economy.

But as an illness suspected to be COVID-19 sickens hundreds of thousands, Kim finds herself at a critical crossroads: either swallow her pride and receive foreign aid to fight the disease, or go it alone. , enduring huge potential deaths that could undermine his leadership.

“Kim Jong Un faces a dilemma, a really huge dilemma,” said Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul. “If he accepts American or Western aid, it may undermine the position of self-reliance he has firmly maintained and public confidence in him could be weakened.”

Doing nothing, however, could be disastrous.

Since acknowledging a COVID-19 outbreak last week, North Korea has said “an explosively spreading fever” has killed 56 people and sickened about 1.5 million others. Outside observers suspect most of these cases were caused by the coronavirus.

Whatever North Korean state-controlled media says about those who are sick, the outbreak is likely many times worse. North Korea lacks sufficient COVID-19 testing, and experts say it is significantly underreporting deaths to avoid possible public unrest that could hurt Kim politically.

Some observers say the reported death toll is low for a country where most of the 26 million people are unvaccinated and where medicine is in short supply.

The North’s apparent under-reporting of deaths is intended to defend Kim’s authority as he faces “the first and greatest crisis” of his decade in office, said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University.

North Korea’s outbreak may be linked to a massive military parade in Pyongyang in late April that Kim held to showcase new weapons and loyal troops. The parade drew tens of thousands of soldiers and residents from across the country. After the event, Kim spent several days taking dozens of commemorative group photos with parade participants, all without masks. Most of the photos involved dozens or hundreds of people.

North Korea may be able to publicly hide the true death toll, but the country’s tightened travel restrictions and quarantine rules could hurt its agricultural culture. Its economy is already battered by more than two years of pandemic-caused border closures and other restrictions.

North Korea is also worried about a shortage of medical supplies, food and basic necessities that have dried up in markets during the border closures, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University. Seoul North Korean Studies.

“They are experiencing another ‘arduous march,'” Yang said, referring to the state’s euphemism for a devastating famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Kim has already turned down millions of vaccine doses offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program. After the North admitted an outbreak, South Korea and China offered to send vaccines, medicine and other medical supplies to North Korea. The United States has said it supports international aid efforts, although it currently has no plans to share vaccine supplies with the North.

Receiving outside help would put the North, still intensely proud, despite its poverty, in a difficult position. Kim had repeatedly presented his country as “impregnable” to the pandemic over the past two years. On Saturday, however, he said his country was facing “a great upheaval” and that officials needed to study how China, his country’s only major ally, and other nations had handled the pandemic.

Nam, the professor, said Kim will probably eventually want to receive aid shipments from China, but not from South Korea, the United States or COVAX.

“Overcoming ‘the great upheaval’ with the help of what North Korea calls the US and South Korean imperialists will not be tolerated as it goes against the dignity of its supreme leader,” he said. he declared.

And North Korea will only accept Chinese aid if it’s done informally and not made public, because it’s “a matter of national pride”, said Institute analyst Seo Yu-Seok. North Korean Studies based in Seoul. He said China would likely agree to this as it sees aid shipments as a way to strengthen ties with a partner facing the West.

But Cho Han Bum, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said North Korea may look to South Korea for support as it questions the effectiveness of Chinese vaccines. He said South Korean shipments through the Korean land border would also be faster.

Experts are divided on what support North Korea needs most. Some call for sending 60 to 70 million doses of vaccine to inoculate its population several times over. Others say it’s too late to send such a large volume and that North Korea needs more fever reducers, test kits, masks and other daily necessities.

Because it is already unrealistic to prevent the spread of a virus in the unvaccinated population of the country, the goal should be to provide a limited supply of vaccines to reduce deaths among high-risk groups, including elderly and people with existing health conditions, said Jung Jae-hun, a professor of preventive medicine at Gachon University in South Korea.

“Combating COVID-19 requires comprehensive national capability, including the ability to test, treat and inoculate people with vaccines,” Jung said. “The problem cannot be solved if the outside world only helps with one or two of these elements.”

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