Kim Jong Un’s reference to COVID vaccine draws wide interest in North Korea

Authorities have yet to say when a nationwide inoculation campaign would start.
By Chang Gyu Ahn for RFA Korean
2022.09.16
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Kim Jong Un’s reference to COVID vaccine draws wide interest in North Korea Army medics involved medicine supply distribution work amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Pyongyang, North Korea May 22, 2022 in this photo released May 23, 2022 by the country's Korean Central News Agency.
KCNA via Reuters

The North Korean people are eager to be inoculated against COVID-19 after their leader Kim Jong Un discussed vaccines in a policy speech, but authorities have not said when vaccines will become available, sources in the country told RFA.

While speaking to the Supreme People’s Assembly on Sept. 8, Kim briefly mentioned that in preparation for winter, public health institutions would be “administering vaccination in a responsible way” but recommended that the public wear masks starting in November.

The speech made international headlines for Kim’s remarks on the nuclear issue — he refused to give up nuclear weapons and lauded a newly passed law that allows preemptive nuclear strikes — but North Koreans are more interested in the single reference to vaccines, hoping it means they can get their jab soon.

“When people gather around these days, they always talk about coronavirus vaccines,” a resident of Kyongwon county in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“In areas close to the Chinese border, like here in Kyongwon county, things were more difficult during the COVID-19 quarantine period,” said the source.

Beijing and Pyongyang closed their 880-mile border and suspended all trade when COVID first emerged. 

Additionally North Korean authorities said anyone caught within a one kilometer “kill zone” at the border would be shot on sight. Authorities also held public executions of smugglers and locked down entire counties and cities when they detected “suspected cases.”

Until the beginning of this year, border areas were much more brutally controlled by the authorities and the rules were enforced more closely than in other areas due to the fears of the malicious virus entering from China,” the source said.

The country maintained that it was completely “virus free” up until May this year when Pyongyang declared a national “maximum emergency” after tracing a major outbreak of the virus to a military parade the previous month. 

The emergency protocol included locking down cities, restricting movement between provinces, and isolating suspected infected persons in quarantine centers. Though only a handful of COVID-19 cases were officially confirmed, government figures identified 4.7 million suspected “fever” cases and 74 deaths over the course of the emergency.

The emergency posture ended Aug. 10, when North Korea claimed victory over the virus.

“I know it is the same throughout the country. But many people in Kyongwon county were ill with COVID-19 during the emergency quarantine period. They died without receiving any treatment because no medicine was available,” the source said. 

“There are 30 households in my neighborhood watch unit. Of those, five have lost members of their family to COVID-19. One household even lost three family members,” the source said. “Everyone is saying we would not have suffered so many deaths if the entire population had been vaccinated against the coronavirus like in other countries.

“I don’t know why the authorities are only now talking about vaccination, when China and other countries started on that so much earlier.” 

North Korea rejected 3 million doses of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine in September 2021, still claiming to be virus free. Pyongyang also twice rejected vaccine assistance from Russia, and did not respond to offers from the Biden administration during the maximum emergency.

“Whenever the neighborhood sees the leader of the neighborhood watch unit, they ask if there is an order to start the vaccination,” the source said.

“Although the authorities are currently promoting the main points addressed in Kim Jong Un’s administrative policy speech, the only thing we are interested in is vaccination.”

A resident of Hyesan, a city in Ryanggang province that borders China, said the biggest concern for locals is when a vaccine will become available. 

“Kim Jong Un mentioned COVID-19 vaccination in his administrative policy speech at the Supreme People's Assembly on Sept. 8th,” the second source told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely. “There should be specific instructions or actions related to vaccination by now. But it's frustrating because the authorities are still quiet.

“We know that vaccines produced in the United States or Europe, where science and technology are more advanced, have excellent safety and effectiveness. Some people are concerned about getting poorer quality Chinese or Russian vaccines,” the second source said.

The disease and government orders to contain it have taken their toll on the Hyesan resident.

“I hope that the nationwide vaccination campaign is completed quickly. I want to live comfortably without having to fear malignant infectious disease.”

RFA reported in late May that the government had begun vaccinating soldiers mobilized as labor for a high-profile construction project in the capital Pyongyang. The campaign was promoted in propaganda films, with soldiers appearing to be moved to tears as they received what the films referred to as the “Immortal Potion of Love” from their benevolent leader Kim Jong Un. 

A spokesperson for the Global Vaccine and Immunity Alliance, which operates the COVAX initiative, told RFA that enough doses could be made available to inoculate every North Korean should the government mount a vaccination drive.

“COVAX will be happy to share the vaccine if North Korea asks for it to be introduced,” the spokesperson said. 

A spokesperson for UNICEF told RFA that it has not received any information regarding a proposed COVID-19 vaccination effort in North Korea.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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