While North Korea claims it is close to a breakthrough in the development of a vaccine for COVID-19, Pyongyang’s elite are taking preliminary steps to have friends abroad purchase foreign vaccines on their behalf once one is developed, Daily NK has learned. 

“A growing number of high-level officials and those from the entrepreneurial class have been offering dollars to those they know overseas to buy a foreign vaccine as soon as one is developed, irrespective of how much it costs,” a source in North Korea told Daily NK on Wednesday. 

“There is word that Chinese traders have been inundated with inquiries from Pyongyang and border regions about whether a vaccine has been developed. It appears these requests are based on the calculation that selling the vaccine will be profitable,” he added. 

According to the source, the main reason behind North Korean elites’ interest in foreign vaccines is a lack of faith in the ability of North Korean authorities to develop a vaccine. 

Many North Koreans are in fact skeptical about claims that North Korea has suddenly advanced in leaps and bounds in vaccine development, pointing out that even basic medicines are beyond the reach of most people. Elites believe that while the government may be able to deceive the common people, they themselves are not so gullible. 

When North Korea began supplying testing kits to hospitals in February, for example, the government claimed they were developed domestically. Doctors, however, ultimately discovered the kits were merely imitations of foreign-made products. 

“Many people are also questioning why [the authorities] are so desperate to scrounge every available resource to rush the construction of Pyongyang General Hospital when they claim there isn’t a single confirmed case in the country,” the source pointed out. 

Daily NK understands that recent efforts to implement stronger disease prevention measures has raised suspicions about COVID-19 outbreaks in the country among ordinary people.  

“North Korea’s government is unable to look out for its citizens, a reality that has created this atmosphere [of distrust toward the government],” the source said, adding, “People already expect to just fend for themselves.” 

On July 18, North Korea’s National Science and Technology Committee (NSTC) posted an article about research and development of a potential COVID-19 vaccine on the “Mirae” website. The article claimed the NSTC had begun clinical trials on a substance that could be a potential vaccine at the beginning of July, and that it was “in talks” with three leading global pharmaceutical companies about an officially approved phase-three clinical trial. 

“The [North Korean communist] party already issued an order to research and develop a vaccine using our own technology, strength and knowledge,” the source said. “In line with this, the Medical Science Research Institute and the Academy of Sciences have been jointly conducting research since April under the supervision of the NSTC, but so far they have nothing to show for it.”

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Jeong Tae Joo is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. He focuses on North Korean military matters. Please direct any questions about his articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.