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North Korea accepts Covid aid from WHO amid border closures

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North Korean health officials spray disinfectant as part of preventative measures against Covid-19 in the Daesong Department Store in the capital Pyongyang on September 27. AFP

North Korea accepts Covid aid from WHO amid border closures

The Covid-19 medical supplies sent by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other UN agencies have reached the North Korean port of Nampo, an apparent signal that the reclusive regime is easing its strict border lockdown and welcoming outside help.

A few months ago, the WHO and other UN agencies were informed by North Korea’s public health ministry that it would allow items stranded in China since the onset of the pandemic to be transported to the North through the seaport Dalian, according to a report on October 8 from Radio Free Asia that cited Edwin Salvador, head of the WHO office in Pyongyang.

It was the first communication from the North Korean government allowing medicines and supplies to be delivered into the country, he added.

“Consequently, WHO was able to transport some of the items by ship to Nampo seaport. We are informed that these items along with the other items from the other UN agencies, remain under quarantine,” Salvador was quoted as saying in the report.

The WHO said its shipments to North Korea included medicines and medical supplies such as personal protective equipment, gloves, masks and Covid-19 test reagents.

These supplies had been locked up in China since the North sealed the border in January last year and suspended all trade with its northern neighbour, which accounts for more than 90 per cent of the regime’s trade.

North Korea’s strict border controls dealt a blow to its already tattered economy, which is suffering the fallout from international sanctions. Concerns are also rising as the regime appears to be bracing for a serious food crisis.

It appears Pyongyang is ready to reopen its border and resume trade with China as well as to receive aid from the outside, after its long pandemic blockade.

“Media reports show that there are signs that some goods are being delivered [from China to North Korea] through maritime shipping routes, but no concrete changes have been confirmed about the resumption of movement via land between Dandong and Sinuiju,” South Korean unification ministry deputy spokesperson Cha Deok-cheol said on October 8. Dandong is in China and Sinuiju is in the North.

He added that it was hard to predict when the land route might reopen and said the ministry would keep an eye on relevant developments.

South Korea and the US have sought to provide humanitarian assistance to the North despite the stalled denuclearisation talks.

The US Department of State on October 7 said it supports humanitarian aid to the North, but stressed that the regime was largely responsible for the suffering there.

“Even when we disagree with a particular regime, we believe that we must work to the best of our ability to do all we can to alleviate the suffering of the people. And so we continue to support international efforts aimed at the provision of critical humanitarian aid to the DPRK,” the department’s spokesperson Ned Price said, referring to the North by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“It’s important to emphasise, at the same time, that the DPRK regime itself is primarily responsible for the humanitarian situation in the country. The regime continues to exploit its own citizens, to violate their human rights, to divert resources from the country’s people to build up its unlawful WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and ballistic missiles programme.”

Price noted that the US is still involved in efforts to facilitate humanitarian assistance to the North, which is evident in its ongoing work to speed up approvals by the UN Security Council’s 1718 sanctions committee for organisations around the world to deliver “life-saving aid” to Pyongyang.

THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

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