UN human rights official urges delivery of 60 million doses of vaccine to North Korea

The United Nations human rights expert on North Korea has urged the international community to send 60 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to North Korea, one of only two countries that has not yet started a broad COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

North Korea has rejected, or failed to act on, many international COVID-19 vaccine offers, including those through COVAX, the global vaccine-sharing program.

“Based on the information we have, the North Korean authorities were suspicious about receiving only part of the vaccine and were then subjected to pressure to accept the rest,” Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, said at a press conference in Seoul on Wednesday. 23/2).

Sixty million doses would be enough to provide a two-dose vaccine for the entire North Korean population, said Ojea Quintana. “I know this has not been proposed to North Korea,” he continued, saying he raised the issue with diplomats, including those from the European Union, during his current visit to Seoul.

Currently COVAX has only 1.29 million doses of vaccine allocated to North Korea, according to UN Children’s Fund records. COVAX previously allocated up to 8.11 million vaccines to the country, but later reduced it, likely due to a lack of response from Pyongyang.

As reported VOA Last July, North Korea was concerned about the safety and efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine that COVAX had originally allocated to the country. North Korea also appears reluctant to allow entry of international officers who will facilitate vaccine deliveries.

A diplomat familiar with the talks between North Korea and Gavi, the vaccines alliance that helps administer COVAX, said it looked unlikely that North Korea would even consider continuing this process until it was satisfied it could get enough vaccines.

Only North Korea and Eritrea, a country in East Africa, have yet to start a mass vaccination campaign, according to the World Health Organization.

Since the start of the pandemic, North Korea has reported a total of 54,187 COVID-19 tests to the World Health Organization. The country insists that all those tested have come back negative.

People wearing masks walk amid concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic in Pyongyang, North Korea, May 15, 2020. (Kyodo via REUTERS)

People wearing masks walk amid concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic in Pyongyang, North Korea, May 15, 2020. (Kyodo via REUTERS)

When asked if she trusted the data, Ojea Quintana said she did not have “up-to-date information” on whether the coronavirus had entered North Korea. But he cited several unverified reports that North Korea was holding individuals in quarantine facilities.

Although North Korea recently restarted freight train operations with China, the country is still in a state of lockdown strict regulations, with travel restrictions within and outside the country.

Ojea Quintana called the restrictions a draconian measure, saying they all add to the reason for the international community to try to provide a vaccine for North Korea. “After that the government will have no reason to maintain border closures,” said Ojea Quintana. [uh/ab]