North Korea says it is joining the race to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, a global contest that has already drafted in some of the world’s best medical minds and is shaping up to cost billions of dollars.
Just don’t expect it to take the lead anytime soon.
If North Korea’s State Commission of Science and Technology is to be believed, clinical trials for the country’s domestic vaccine candidate are already underway – and a debate is now happening about how to proceed with the third phase, which involves human testing.
To the outside world, the claim could appear dubious.
The race to develop a vaccine for a disease that has infected nearly 14.5 million people and killed more than 605,000 globally is one of the most daunting and pressing technological and scientific challenges the world has faced in recent memory. It will likely cost huge sums of money, and nations are investing heavily to win what’s shaping up to become a competition of scientific superiority and national pride.
Yet North Korea has one of the most dilapidated health care systems on the planet, and for decades it has relied on assistance from the World Health Organization (WHO) to supply its people with vaccines and immunizations. Then there’s the fact that Pyongyang has not publicly admitted to any infections inside the country.
So why would a country that hasn’t claimed a single case of Covid-19 and is in economic dire straits spend time, money and resources on developing a vaccine?
There’s no simple answer, but it’s likely a combination of genuine fear of the virus as well as a bid to convince North Koreans that leader Kim Jong Un will, once again, rise to the challenge and protect his people.
North Korea was one of the first states to view Covid-19 as a serious threat, and with good reason: most experts believe its health care system would be quickly overwhelmed in a pandemic. Many North Korean medical facilities do not have access to reliable electricity or running water. Medicine and other equipment are often in short supply.
Testing capacity also appears to be an issue. As of early July, only 922 people in a country of about 25 million had been tested for the virus, according to the WHO representative in North Korea, Dr. Edwin Salvador.
Salvador said in an email at the time that since the pandemic began, 25,551 people had been quarantined and later released. As many as 255 people – all North Korean nationals – were still being kept in quarantine as of July 3.
Many independent public health experts are skeptical North Korea’s claims to have no confirmed Covid-19 infections. The virus is highly infectious, and could have easily seeped into the country undetected.
That being said, North Korea is well placed to stop clusters from spreading, as it can quickly enact the type of lockdown measures that other states were slower to embrace. It is, after all, a dictatorship that strictly controls who comes in – usually only a small number of tourists, diplomats and aid workers – and where its citizens can and cannot go. Defectors say average North Koreans are not permitted to travel far from home without government approval.
By most accounts, the pandemic appears under control in North Korea. Kim said earlier this month that his country’s efforts have been a “shining success,” but warned his officials not to get complacent as the global health crisis has not yet abated.
It’s unclear how heavily a domestically produced vaccine candidate plays into North Korea’s anti-epidemic strategy. This is, after all, the so-called “Hermit Kingdom” – a country notorious for secrecy and obfuscation.
Yet Pyongyang must recognize it’s behind the pack in the vaccine race. As of last Wednesday, there were more than 140 candidate vaccines in preclinical evaluation and 23 that had reached clinical trials, according to a list compiled by the WHO. Some of the giant pharmaceutical companies backing those vaccines are worth more than North Korea’s entire economy.
So financially, a North Korean push for a vaccine doesn’t make sense. Look at it through the prism of propaganda potential, however, and the picture becomes more clear.
For decades, North Korea was the technologically advanced, industrialized half of the Korean peninsula courtesy of the legacy of Japanese occupation. Most of the natural resources the Japanese wanted were in the north, which is why they built the factories there. South Korea was the breadbasket, and its economy was largely agrarian until after the Korean War.
Defectors say that today, the North Korean veneer of technological supremacy has been tarnished by the foreign movies and TV shows smuggled into the country. Yet reading North Korean state media gives the impression that the country has become a global technology powerhouse because of the leadership of the Kim family and its state ideology of Juche – which is usually defined as “self-reliance” but also carries implications of an abstract, ethno-nationalist belief in the superiority of the Korean race.
“Talents, science and technology are our key strategic asset and weapon,” a short piece published in June by state news agency KCNA read.
These talents, KCNA said, have “have evoked world-wide admiration.”
“It is thanks to the world-level horizons of our scientists and technicians and their self-esteem of living in a powerful country and deep knowledge that the power and prestige of Juche Korea are being demonstrated on the international arena,” the report read.
In times of conflict with South Korea or the United States, the North’s nuclear weapons program would be the most visible example of this – it is, after all, one of only eight countries to ever test a nuclear weapon. But most weeks, KCNA carries many other stories about seemingly mundane technological and scientific achievements that hammer the point home.
State media also tends to focus on fields where North Korea has not met the demands of its people – especially electricity and food security.
KCNA reported on a new type of potato developed by North Korean scientists last week and the breeding of 10 new, “tasty” and “high-yielding” vegetables. In June, the news service published pieces on the country’s “world-leading” hydraulic barrages; new advancements in rainbow trout farming; breeding a new species of goldfish; new technological inventions at the Taedonggang beer factory; and the production a new ultraviolet lamp better than its imported equivalent.
Of course, producing a Covid-19 vaccine will likely be much, much more difficult than any of those. As of Monday afternoon, KCNA was yet to officially report on North Korea’s vaccine efforts, with the only declaration of the country’s ambitions coming from a government website.
However the ability to do so would no doubt be a nice propaganda tool for a leader whose mandate rests on his reported preternatural ability to protect the Korean people.
CNN’s Yoonjung Seo contributed reporting