At 6pm Seoul time this evening, the American National Security Council announced the release of 16 additional packages of biomedical products to Pyongyang, at a rate of one per week until 27 April. Some of the medical supplies were already under agreement, and most have now been delivered. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is coordinating the international clinical assessment of the medical care provided in South Korean hospitals. The remaining vaccines are to be shipped by the CDC to Korea.
Historically, North Korea has not aggressively sought out vaccine supplies from international organizations, preferring to purchase through regional middlemen. This is only the second time, since 2005, that North Korea has sought to buy vaccines with official export licenses.
Last July, the Paris-based World Health Organization (WHO) and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) signed an agreement with the North Korean government to promote and assist the country in its recovery from the H1N1 pandemic. The aim of this agreement was to increase the health workforce of North Korean health workers. The agreement included influenza vaccines, antibiotic decongestants, and pain medications, and was supported by two additional product consignments in 2016, of more than 500,000 anti-cholera (Ratten) vaccines and the approximately one million doses of influenza vaccine, also known as zanamivir. Since those shipments, a newly-formed expert committee appointed by the North Korean government, led by Choi Sin-ho, minister of Korean People’s Army Medicine, assessed that a variety of vaccines are needed to protect the population from the outbreaks of bird flu and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). This week’s announcement, therefore, is a tangible, post-doctoral contribution to the medical response to this global disease.
The Center for Disease Control has been working with the North Korean government for two years now on the scientific requirements and technical process of procuring these vaccines and promoting them on the international stage, as well as supporting and training North Korean health officials in the areas of public health, public safety, and bio-security. To date, UNWTO has implemented the vaccine delivery system in North Korea.
The news will be welcomed by North Korean patients recovering from Ebola, but it is unlikely to curtail the next outbreak. As always, it is critical that other countries are prepared. Members of the global community have a responsibility to stand with countries like North Korea who are in need of medication and know-how.
The US provides annual humanitarian assistance to North Korea for over a decade, but provides little or no international health assistance, in part due to the long-standing trade and humanitarian sanctions. The North Korean Government limits access to international medical facilities, has, and still does, employ private doctors, and has not allowed UNWTO to conduct training with international partners.
Diplomats should maintain sanctions until they are able to demonstrate that the restrictions actually improve North Korea’s trade and investment policies. Pyongyang must respond to humanitarian appeals and permit international medical and international rescue operations, as a precondition to lifting the blockade.
Yingjun Hong – North Korea spokesperson/BEIJING