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The WHO has started shipping COVID-19 medical supplies to North Korea

In this Dec. 28, 2020, file photo, staff of the Pyongyang Department Store No. 1 disinfect the store to help curb the spread of the coronavirus before it opens in Pyongyang, North Korea.
In this Dec. 28, 2020, file photo, staff of the Pyongyang Department Store No. 1 disinfect the store to help curb the spread of the coronavirus before it opens in Pyongyang, North Korea.

SEOUL, South Korea — The World Health Organization has started shipping COVID-19 medical supplies into North Korea, a possible sign that the North is easing one of the world's strictest pandemic border closures to receive outside help.

WHO said in a weekly monitoring report that it has started the shipment of essential COVID-19 medical supplies through the Chinese port of Dalian for "strategic stockpiling and further dispatch" to North Korea.

Edwin Salvador, WHO's representative to North Korea, said in an email to the Associated Press Thursday that some items, including emergency health kits and medicine, have reached the North Korean port of Nampo after North Korean authorities allowed the WHO and other U.N. agencies to send supplies that had been stuck in Dalian.

"Consequently, we have been able to transport some of our items by ship to Nampo ... (including) emergency health kits, medicines and medical supplies that would support essential health services at primary health care centers," Salvador said. "We are informed that WHO items along with supplies sent by other U.N. agencies are currently still under quarantine at the seaport."

Describing its anti-virus campaign was a matter of "national existence," North Korea had severely restricted cross-border traffic and trade for the past two years despite the strain on its already crippled economy.

U.N. human rights investigators in August asked the North's government to clarify allegations that it ordered troops to shoot on sight any trespassers who cross its borders in violation of its pandemic closing.

While North Korea has yet to report a single case of COVID-19, outside experts widely doubt it escaped the illness that had touched nearly every other place in the world.

The North has told WHO it has tested 40,700 people for the coronavirus through Sept. 23 and that all the tests were negative. Those tested in the last week reported included 94 people with influenza-like illnesses or other symptoms and 573 health care workers, according to the WHO report.

Experts say an epidemic in North Korea could be devastating, considering its poor health care system and chronic lack of medical supplies.

But despite implementing severe border controls, North Korea hasn't shown the same kind of urgency for vaccines even as its mass immunization campaign continues to be delayed amid global shortages.

Analysts say North Korea could be uneasy about international monitoring requirements that would be attached to the vaccines it receives from the outside world. There are also views that leader Kim Jong Un has domestic political motivations to tighten the country's self-imposed lockdown as he calls for unity and tries to solidify his grip on power while navigating perhaps his toughest moment after nearly a decade of rule.

Salvador said the WHO is continuing to work with North Korean officials so that they complete the technical requirements for receiving vaccines through the U.N.-backed COVAX distribution program. He said the North has developed a national deployment plan to use as reference when it begins its vaccine rollout.

The latest WHO report came weeks after Kim during a ruling party meeting ordered officials to wage a tougher anti-virus campaign in "our style" after he turned down some foreign COVID-19 vaccines offered via COVAX.

UNICEF, which procures and delivers vaccines on behalf of the COVAX distribution program, said last month that North Korea proposed its allotment of about 3 million Sinovac shots be sent to severely affected countries instead.

Some analysts say the North is angling to receive more effective jabs amid questions about the Sinovac vaccine's effectiveness.

UNICEF said the North Korean health ministry said it will continue to communicate with COVAX over future vaccines.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.