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North Korea bans dry cargo imports while people starve

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“Can you get it from sitting on a toilet seat?” asked one of the guys in our group of newly arrived volunteers in Bangkok as we received our required briefing on sexually transmitted diseases.

The Peace Corps doctor, a born comedian, had been waiting for the question. “That’s nearly impossible,” he replied, deadpan. “But I have to warn you that you may get it from kissing a toilet seat.”

What prompts this recollection from many decades ago is the realization that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un – at a time when many of his people are going hungry – appears to have adopted a scientifically unsupported theory that Covid-19 is likely to be transmitted by contact with imported dry goods, such as a cargo of grain or a shipment of fertilizer or farm machinery.

North Korea’s healthcare system is primitive and could be overwhelmed in the event of a major surge of infections. Kim credits his 18-month total shutdown of the country’s borders for keeping the Covid rate at zero.

Many outside observers doubt his no-infections claim while others argue that his extreme response has helped to bring on a food shortage that’s now very serious.

Scientists still disagree on the origin of the disease in humans, arguing over whether it crossed over in a bat cave or a biological lab or a “wet market,” where live animals were offered for sale followed by on-scene slaughter, butchering and packaging.

Regardless of that disagreement, when it comes to how the disease spreads among humans the near-consensus view among scientists who have studied the question is that the coronavirus typically is spread by droplets in the air that have been expelled from the mouths of infected people.

Medical experts generally think that Covid-19 transmission via contaminated surfaces probably isn’t a major source of infection.

The reason public health officials urge that you disinfect your hands after you’ve shopped in a store is that droplets from infected people who’ve preceded you may have fallen on goods or on store surfaces. Having touched those goods or surfaces with your hands, you’d be wise to avoid touching your hands to your mouth, eyes or nose.

Customers shop for pork at a wet market in Taicang city, east China’s Jiangsu province. Photo: AFP

China, tired of being blamed under one or another of the three origin theories for unleashing the disease upon the world, lately has been pushing an alternate fourth theory that the origination and spread of the disease have something to do with imported food.

World Health Organization officials after a highly criticized WHO inspection tour in Wuhan offered some backing for that theory. Here, to the contrary, is the latest advice from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

  • The risk of getting Covid-19 from food you cook yourself or from handling and consuming food from restaurants and takeout or drive-thru meals is thought to be very low. Currently, there is no evidence that food is associated with spreading the virus that causes Covid-19.
  • The risk of infection by the virus from food products, food packaging or bags is thought to be very low. Currently, no cases of Covid-19 have been identified where infection was thought to have occurred by touching food, food packaging or shopping bags.
  • Although some people who work in food production and processing facilities have gotten Covid-19, there is no evidence of the virus spreading to consumers through the food or packaging that workers in these facilities may have handled.

Regardless of who’s right regarding the Chinese theory, could Kim perhaps see some benefit in giving credence to China’s still unproven theory?

That doesn’t quite work out because the Chinese “cold chain food contamination” theory, as Asia Times has reported, refers to foods such as chicken and seafood that need to be kept refrigerated from the time of processing through all the steps of distribution.

Few North Koreans could afford to buy such products. Solving the North Korean hunger problem, rather, would more likely involve importing grains in bulk.

North Korea’s policy apparently reflects an unproven theory more extreme than cold chain transmission.

If a report from Seoul-based NKDaily is correct, the North Korean authorities have been treating a particular cargo of rice – a grain that, of course, in its uncooked form is not “wet” like the meat at a wet market or like imported frozen chicken or seafood – as an illicit import that must be blocked at the country’s Nampo port, or that it must at least be quarantined to prevent the infection of North Korean people.

Plastic bottles filled with rice and face masks are loaded on a truck of North Korean defector Park Jung-oh as he prepares a plan to send the bottles towards North Korea through a border river, in Seoul on June 18, 2020. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

But it’s not necessary to credit that news report in order to wonder why the regime, ever since January last year, has largely suspended the import of such essentials as grain and fertilizer.

I’m probably not the only observer who had assumed, innocently, that the restrictions were mainly aimed at keeping any transport workers and distribution people involved from crossing into North Korea, in case they might be infected.

Recent news suggests otherwise. Lately, there have been a number of indications that it’s not just the people: The regime designates imports of any description, including grain cargoes, as dangerous as such.

Based on a briefing he’d received from the National Intelligence Service last week in Seoul, lawmaker Ha Tae-keung told reporters that, although North Korea had planned to reopen its border with China in April, the Pyongyang regime had since shelved the idea “due to a shortage of disinfecting equipment.”

An unconfirmed Japanese newspaper report suggested North Korea now plans to resume some trade this month.

Disinfecting dry goods

“North Korean authorities recently elevated the Ministry of Public Health’s National Institute of Hygiene Inspection to a ‘bureau’ with a vastly strengthened role,” reports DailyNK. The account continues:

While ordering the establishment of the new bureau, North Korean leaders demanded that everything be done to prevent the coronavirus from “infiltrating” the country “through objects from the outside world” as “nobody can predict when the global Covid-19 pandemic will end, and [because] another pandemic could occur in the future.”

The country’s leadership pointed out that the new bureau should first and foremost stop government agencies and officials from “unconsciously committing random acts” as viruses could enter the country and cause irreversible disasters “because of objects [goods or products] from the outside world [the country] doesn’t need right away.”

For example, the authorities pointed out the “treasonous behavior” by some factories and enterprises of smuggling machinery across the China-North Korea border by designating the wares “necessary items.”

Meanwhile, there’s this: “International mail has also come to a complete halt due to the refusal to accept mail from China,” reports Osaka-based AsiaPress.

Objects? Machinery? Letters? Talk about dry goods. Is fending off any very modest (perhaps toilet-seat level?) danger from the virus in such cases worth letting many people go hungry through outright bans on, or quarantine-related delays of, such shipments?

The WHO says it’s highly unlikely that a package from an area with coronavirus will infect a person.

Reports suggest the regime has not explained its actions anywhere near persuasively to the population.

No one is masked and there is no social distancing as Kim Jong Un sits surrounded by writers, singers and performers from art troupes during an awards ceremony Sunday. Kim’s regime claims to have kept the coronavirus at bay – but at what cost? Photo: AFP / KCNA via KNS

“Although there has been no Covid-19 outbreak, there is widespread unrest in the country,” writes the AsiaPress editor-in-chief Jiro Ishimaru, who gets the news he publishes from undercover “reporting partners” inside the country whom he has equipped with Chinese cellphones.

“A side effect of the strong quarantine measures has been a severe economic deterioration, and the situation has already reached the humanitarian crisis level,” Ishimaru adds. “‘I’m more afraid of hunger than of coronavirus’ – this is what the residents feared a year ago, and it has come true.”

Ishimaru calls Kim’s policy “bizarre.” But what is the actual state of mind of the ruler?

A foreign Pyongyang watcher suggests the case shows Kim to be just not very smart. One could argue to the contrary, however, by pointing out that the leader the North Korean media refer to as “the highest dignity” is smart enough – and vicious enough – to have maintained his authoritarian rule for a decade.

Daily NK quotes an unnamed source as suggesting that, facing a major food crisis, Kim is looking for excuses to blame subordinates and carry out a major purge. “Every time they’ve faced difficulties,” said the source, the authorities “have avoided a crisis by killing or dismissing cadres.”

That explanation isn’t fully satisfying. Nor, so far, is another foreign Pyongyang-watching colleague’s somewhat similar suggestion that what we see reflects a developing “bunker mentality.”

We may be getting slightly closer – although we’re not there yet – with this comment from a humanitarian NGO worker who has dealt with the regime:

“In perceived emergencies societies tend to circle the wagons against foreign influences: biological or ideological.”

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