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Doctors at a hospital in Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province, discussing ways to deal with ways to deal with the outbreak of COVID-19. (Rodong Sinmun)

North Korea continues to refuse COVID-19 vaccine aid from the international community, even as the country’s authorities continue to emphasize the importance of disease control efforts. Many North Koreans believe the authorities refuse to adopt vaccines for economic and political reasons.

A high-ranking Daily NK source in North Korea said Monday that the state believes that accepting vaccines will lead to the opening of the border. He said the authorities cannot easily accept vaccines because vaccinations would remove their justification for keeping the border closed.

That is to say, North Korean authorities believe that the closure of the border and internal controls imposed ostensibly to stop COVID-19 are politically useful.

The source said there has been recent talk in the country that the authorities will decide on adopting a vaccine after efforts to restore a “state-centered economic order” are completed.

Daily NK has determined that, since last month, North Korea has been putting regional trading companies under the direct control of the Cabinet and dissolving or merging trading companies that have failed to post import or export results over the last several years.

In an economic report to the Supreme People’s Assembly in February, Premier Kim Tok Hun said the government would continue to push forward with efforts to restore the state-led, unitary trading system. Since then, North Korea has been working to reorganize the trading system into one where the state administers and supervises all imports and exports.

North Korean leaders apparently believe that the closure of the border is an opportunity to strengthen the state-centered economic system, and it plans to adopt vaccines and open the border only after efforts to bring the economy back under state control are completed.

Meanwhile, North Korea is apparently making full political use of COVID lockdowns and controls.

Since January 2020, North Korean authorities have used the spread of COVID-19 in China and the appearance of individuals with symptoms of the disease to put whole cities under lockdown and restrict internal movement, as well as to strengthen regular inspections by establishing separate quarantine checkpoints.

North Korea is also waging an intense struggle against so-called “anti-socialist and non-socialist behavior” through the December 2020 adoption of a law to eradicate “reactionary thought and culture.” In line with the border closure, the law completely blocks all communications and exchanges between North Koreans and the outside world.

A source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK that because the country’s leadership believes thought and culture from the outside world weakens the ideological convictions of the people, it is bolstering inspections and continues to limit the issuance of travel certificates. He said people also complain that the state is trying to “suffocate” them, continuously intensifying quarantine efforts while refusing to vaccinate people.

All this essentially means that many ordinary North Koreans believe the authorities are using COVID-19 to strengthen internal controls.

In an article published on Apr. 18 that called on people to “comply even more thoroughly” with quarantine regulations “with a sense of crisis,” the Rodong Sinmun reported that the rapid spread of the highly contagious “stealth variant” — which can also evade vaccine protections — is making the situation even worse.

The North Korean media’s continued emphasis on the imperfection of vaccines may be aimed at quieting public doubt and discontent with the country’s failure to adopt vaccines, while at the same time bolstering controls in the name of disease control efforts. 

North Korea rejected some two million doses of AstraZeneca earmarked for the country by COVAX last year, citing concern over side effects. It also turned down three million doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine.

This year, over 1.28 million doses of AstraZeneca and 252,000 doses of the US-made Novavax vaccine were earmarked for North Korea, but the entire consignment was canceled because Pyongyang expressed no intent to accept it.

Translated by David Black. Edited by Robert Lauler. 

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Seulkee Jang is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.