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UN Rights Official Urges 60 Million Vaccines for North Korea

FILE - 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, Dec. 28, 2020.
FILE - 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, Dec. 28, 2020.

The United Nations’ top North Korea human rights expert is urging the international community to send 60 million doses of coronavirus vaccines to North Korea, one of only two countries yet to begin widespread COVID-19 vaccination campaigns.

North Korea has rejected, or failed to move forward with, multiple international offers of COVID-19 vaccines, including through COVAX, the global vaccine-sharing program.

"From the information that we have, the North Korean authorities are suspicious about receiving just the partial number of vaccines and then being subject to some kind of pressure to then receive the rest of the shots," Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, told a news conference in Seoul on Wednesday.

Sixty million doses would be enough to provide two vaccine doses to North Korea’s entire population, Ojea Quintana pointed out. "I know this has not been proposed to North Korea," he added, saying he raised the issue with diplomats, including those from the European Union, during his ongoing trip to Seoul.

Currently, COVAX has only 1.29 million vaccine doses allocated to North Korea, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund’s Vaccine Market Dashboard. COVAX previously allocated as many as 8.11 million vaccines to the country, but has had to scale back that number, presumably because of a lack of response from Pyongyang.

As VOA reported in July, North Korea is worried about the safety and efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine that COVAX had initially allocated for the country. It also appears reluctant to allow entry to international workers who would facilitate a vaccine shipment.

A diplomat familiar with the negotiations between North Korea and Gavi, a vaccine alliance that helps run COVAX, said it appears North Korea won’t even consider moving the process forward until it is satisfied it can obtain enough vaccines.

"I have not heard the DPRK say it. It is more how we all contextualize their posture," the source told VOA.

North Korea and the East African nation of Eritrea are the world’s only two countries yet to begin a mass vaccination campaign, according to the World Health Organization.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, North Korea has reported a total of 54,187 COVID-19 tests to the World Health Organization. It insists all those tests have been negative.

Asked about whether he trusts those numbers, Ojea Quintana said he does not have "current information" about whether the coronavirus has entered North Korea. But he noted several unverified reports suggesting North Korea was holding individuals in quarantine facilities.

Though North Korea recently resumed some freight train trade with China, the country remains in a severe state of lockdown, with restrictions on both domestic and cross-border travel.

Ojea Quintana described the restrictions as draconian, saying they were all the more reason for the international community to strive to provide North Korea with vaccines.

"Then the government will have no excuse to maintain the closing of the borders," said Ojea Quintana, whose term as special rapporteur ends in August.