North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered officials to wage a tougher epidemic prevention campaign in "our style" after he turned down some foreign COVID-19 vaccines offered via the UN-backed immunization program. During a Politburo meeting Thursday, Kim said officials must "bear in mind that tightening epidemic prevention is the task of paramount importance which must not be loosened even a moment," the official Korean Central News Agency reported Friday. He called for "further rounding off our style epidemic prevention system," KCNA said.
Kim previously called for North Koreans to brace for prolonged COVID-19 restrictions, indicating the nation's borders would stay closed despite worsening economic and food conditions, the AP reports. Since the start of the pandemic, North Korea has used tough quarantines and border closures to prevent outbreaks, though its claim to be entirely virus-free is widely doubted.
On Tuesday, UNICEF, which procures and delivers vaccines on behalf of the COVAX distribution program, said North Korea proposed its allotment of about 3 million Sinovac shots be sent to severely affected countries instead. North Korea was also slated to receive AstraZeneca shots through COVAX, but their delivery has been delayed. Some experts believe North Korea may want other vaccines, while questioning the effectiveness of Sinovac and the rare blood clots seen in some recipients of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, says North Korea is likely angling to receive more effective jabs from COVAX and then strategically allocate them domestically. "The Kim regime likely wants the most safe and effective vaccine for the elite, but administering Pfizer would require upgraded cold chain capability in Pyongyang and at least discreet discussions with the United States," Easley says.
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