North Korea has been quietly soliciting coronavirus aid from other countries even though it has publicly denied the existence of any cases on home soil, according to a new report.
Officials in the isolated country have privately reached out to their counterparts in other countries asking for urgent help in fighting the outbreak, the Financial Times reported, citing several people familiar with the matter and an unidentified document.
The country has also asked hospitals in South Korea and several international aid agencies for masks and test machines, Reuters reported last Friday, citing two sources with knowledge of the matter.
North Korea has officially reported no cases of the coronavirus, and, in late January, shut its border with China after the outbreak started to spill out of the central Hubei province into other regions near the border.
According to the FT, the country has tested at least 590 citizens — all of whom had arrived from outside the country in January — but all of them tested negative.
Foreign media and experts doubt the official infection toll, however.
Some South Korean media outlets have reported that North Korea has recorded deaths from the coronavirus, but that the regime is concealing them from the world.
Daily NK, a news site focusing on North Korea, also reported that 180 North Korean soldiers died of the virus in January and February, and that another 3,700 were sent to quarantine.
South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo said that there were at least two suspected cases of the illness in the city of Sinuiju, which borders China. Daily NK also reported that as many as five people had died of the coronavirus in Sinuiju.
North Korea’s lack of medical supplies and weak healthcare system have left it ill-equipped to handle an outbreak like the coronavirus, Business Insider’s Paulina Cachero previously reported.
“There’s not enough medicine for the country. I’m really concerned about them facing an outbreak,” Nagi Shafik, a former World Health Organization and UNICEF official in Pyongyang, told Business Insider.
The country currently fears it doesn’t have enough testing kits for its citizens, the FT reported.
“The government has testing kits for COVID-19 and they know how to use them, but [the number of kits are] not sufficient, hence, [officials are] requesting all organizations … to support them in this regard,” a source told the FT.
Non-governmental aid agencies have also been trying to help North Korea prepare for an outbreak, but are struggling to get supplies across its shuttered border with China, Reuters reported.
Médecins Sans Frontières told the news agency that emergency supplies bound for North Korea were currently in Beijing and Dandong, a Chinese city bordering North Korea, and that officials were working to get the kit across the border despite the closure.
In a rare admission of weakness, Kim acknowledged on March 18 that his country did not have enough modern medical facilities and called for improvements, the Associated Press reported, citing the state-controlled Korea Central News Agency (KCNA).
On the orders of Kim, construction began on the new Pyongyang General Hospital on Wednesday, according to KCNA.