For North Korea to return to some semblance of its pre-COVID existence it will need to vaccinate its population, but acquiring the necessary vaccines will not be the only challenge North Korea faces.
Once North Korea has acquired a vaccine to begin dosing its population, it will still need to have a proper cold chain system in place to store and distribute the vaccine around the country. The vaccines need to remain cold throughout the whole shipment process requiring there to be a system of cold refrigeration storage and trucks equipped with cold storage boxes to maintain the proper temperatures when shipping the vaccines domestically in North Korea.
The Cost of the Pandemic
As the dangers of COVID-19 began becoming clear last year, North Korea was perhaps the first country to institute a travel ban to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside its borders. In January of 2020, North Korea closed its border to foreign travelers and would soon put in place fairly strict restrictions on trade as well.
While North Korea has continued to report that it has not had any cases of the coronavirus, the cost of keeping COVID-19 out of North Korea or substantially at bay has been a self-imposed quarantine. Trade with China, North Korea’s main trading partner, is down significantly. North Korean exports to China declined 77 percent last year, while imports from China were down 80 percent according to Chinese trade data. Even North Korea’s smuggling efforts are reported to have been disrupted to minimize the exposure to COVID-19.
The closure to foreign travelers means in late January also means that that North Korea lost an important source of hard currency that is estimated to bring in a minimum of $105 million a year for the regime.
North Korea’s Lackluster Vaccine Infrastructure
The WHO helped North Korea undertake a cold chain storage upgrade in early 2010s that met the needs for IPV vaccines. However, those vaccines work between 2°C-8°. Those temperatures would be sufficient for storing the AstraZeneca vaccine, one of the Chinese developed vaccines, or Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, but would not be nearly cold enough for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Despite the WHO supported upgrades of North Korea’s cold chain system, the UN body has noted that inconsistent electrical supplies remain a problem for North Korea’s cold chain system. COVAX, the global initiative designed to ensure equitable access to vaccines for low income countries, is working to provide solar cold-chain fridges for the storage and distribution of the vaccine. Solar powered fridges would help to address the power fluctuation issues for storage, but North Korea may need a UN exemption for the fridges as solar panels are currently on the list of items prohibited for export to North Korea.
Another challenge is transportation. The vaccines need to be kept cold from production through usage. Once the vaccine arrive in North Korea they will need to be transported. Even in advanced countries like Japan some 30,000 transportation boxes are expected to be needed.
One option for shipping the vaccine is to use food supply chains that already have cold storage facilities. In the case of North Korea, that would require a better understanding of the types of trucks available and their storage facilities. It may also require Pyongyang to open its border to allow critical vehicles in from China, Russia, or South Korea to transport and distribute the vaccine to medical centers.
Hacking Their Way to a Solution
The challenges of storing and distributing the most effective vaccines at ultra-cold temperatures may explain reports last year about hacks on companies that help to distribute vaccines. In early December, IBM began warning that hackers were attempting to gain access to companies involved in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. On the surface this might seem perplexing that hackers would target the storage and distribution of the vaccines rather than the data on the vaccines themselves, but it does have advantages for North Korea.
While the technology for ultra-cold chain storage is not new, it is sophisticated. Many advanced countries are also in short supply of the needed equipment, meaning that there is a backlog of orders for new equipment.
While North Korea’s cold chain system may be sufficient to handle some of the vaccines that have received emergency approval or are close to doing so, it is reported to prefer a vaccine developed by the United States, the UK, or the German firm BioTech which co-developed the Pfizer vaccine. If North Korea did want to pursue one of the more effective vaccines, producing the necessary refrigeration equipment might be its only option.
The only way for North Korea to restore trade with China and its smuggling operations to something approaching pre-pandemic levels is to vaccinate key individuals and eventually enough of its population to achieve herd immunity. This means getting its cold chain system prepared for vaccines supplied by COVAX and other aid donors. That, however, requires North Korea to be transparent with the international community. Something it has been unwilling to do to date.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director and Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s photostream.