North Korea has claimed that there have been no coronavirus cases but the government of Kim Jong Un has isolated a border city in recent weeks over worries about potential infections
North Korea has claimed there have been no coronavirus cases but the government of Kim Jong Un has isolated a border city in recent weeks over worries about potential infections © REUTERS

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Foreign aid groups struggling to protect North Korea from the coronavirus pandemic have been forced to borrow money from the government of dictator Kim Jong Un.

The fallout from international sanctions has disrupted deliveries of medical supplies into the impoverished country and blocked the flow of funding to non-governmental aid organisations.

Experts said the absence of an effective banking channel into North Korea highlighted how US-led sanctions targeting Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme were also hindering the work of aid agencies.

“It is a country that can’t cope in the best of times — it has got 40 per cent of its population needing some form of humanitarian support,” said Richard Blewitt, for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, one of the affected groups.

Aid organisations’ efforts have taken on greater urgency after North Korea in recent weeks isolated the border city of Kaesong and further tightened travel restrictions around Pyongyang.

The funding crisis has exacerbated the problems faced by NGOs in the country, where the task of helping 25m vulnerable people has been made more difficult with tighter border controls and travel restrictions amid the global pandemic. 

International sanctions do not prohibit the transfer of money and supplies for humanitarian purposes. But after the measures were tightened in 2017 — in the wake of a series of missile and nuclear tests by Mr Kim — financial institutions have been unwilling to facilitate a banking channel with Pyongyang. That has forced NGOs to physically carry cash into the country to fund their programmes.

Experts said that although transactions were legal, banks were worried about reputational damage from being linked to the Kim regime and its alleged human rights abuses. They were also wary of being caught in the crosshairs of the US Treasury, which polices North Korea’s illicit global networks.

Mr Blewitt added: “The lack of a banking channel now for over two years is really difficult. The planes haven’t been coming in, the regular movement of our international staff hasn’t been happening, and so we have to borrow, on the ground, from authorities to maintain operations . . . It is a problem for the UN, it is a problem for us, it is a problem for the NGOs.”

The Red Cross successfully delivered medical supplies to North Korea in July — the consignment contained a polymerase chain reaction machine used for coronavirus diagnostics as well as 10,000 testing kits and protective equipment — after a delay of several months. That gap put the spotlight on the UN’s complex sanctions exemption system.

Pressing problems cited by NGOs include a requirement under the sanctions rules to consolidate aid deliveries into single consignments — which removes the potential flexibility of being able to separate packages into smaller parcels — as well as time restrictions on sanctions exemptions.

Kee Park, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School who has worked inside North Korea, urged UN member states to remove all barriers for humanitarian aid. “The current sanctions regime on North Korea is absurd — especially in times of international health emergencies like this pandemic,” he said.

North Korean state media continues to claim zero confirmed coronavirus cases in the country. But moves in recent weeks to publicise potential infections in Kaesong, after a defector returned from South Korea, has stoked scepticism over the statements by Pyongyang’s propagandists.

Nonetheless, Nagi Shafik, a former manager at the World Health Organization office in Pyongyang, did not rule out North Korean success in containing the virus. He said the “early and strict” response to the health crisis in China in January and the “tight lockdown” — despite battering the economy — had helped.

However, Mr Shafik also warned that if authorities were slow in revealing any cases of community transmission and aid groups continued to face delays in responding “the situation will be a real challenge for the health system”.

Complicating delivery of aid further has been Pyongyang’s own resistance to receiving assistance from the US.

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China and Russia have provided significant support, bolstering efforts from groups including the Red Cross, WHO, Unicef and Médecins Sans Frontières. But some US-linked groups have struggled to win approval from North Korean authorities, even amid the threat of the global pandemic, according to people familiar with the matter.

The issue raises questions over whether the Kim regime has blocked US aid because it does not want to risk losing leverage in long-running negotiations with Washington over nuclear weapons and sanctions. Talks have been stalled despite three meetings in two years between Mr Kim and US President Donald Trump.

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