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The country reported what it states as its first suspected coronavirus case on Sunday. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un imposed a lockdown in the border city of Kaesong.
The country’s elites are seeking to obtain a foreign COVID-19 vaccine amid beliefs it lacks faith in its own ability to create one.
A source in North Korea said: “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.
“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.”
North Korea began supplying coronavirus testing kits to hospitals in February and claimed they were developed domestically.
But doctors discovered the kits were imitations of foreign-made products.
The source told Daily NK: “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.”
Efforts to enforce stronger disease prevention measures has raised concerns about outbreaks of COVID-19 in North Korea.
The source said: “North Korea’s government is unable to look out for its citizens, a reality that has created this atmosphere.
“People already expect to just fend for themselves.”
Earlier this month, North Korea’s National Science and Technology Committee (NSTC) published an article about the research and development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
The article said the NSTC had started clinical trials on a substance which could be a potential vaccine.
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It also said the NSTC was “in talks” with three leading global pharmaceutical companies about an officially approved phase-three trial.
The source added: “The North Korean communist party already issued an order to research and develop a vaccine using our own technology, strength and knowledge.
“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.”
This comes as North Korea’s state media said a person who defected to South Korea three years ago returned across the demarcation line with COVID-19 symptoms last week.
KCNA news agency said: “An emergency event happened in Kaesong city where a runaway who went to the south three years ago, a person who is suspected to have been infected with the vicious virus, returned on 19 July after illegally crossing the demarcation line.”
The North Korean leader launched an investigation into how the defector had managed to cross the border.
He warned those responsible that “a severe punishment” would be issued.
A South Korea military official said on Sunday there were “high chances” an individual had illegally crossed into the North.
They also said an investigation had been launched.
North Korea closed its borders six months ago as the coronavirus pandemic was sweeping the globe.
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