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North Korea

Kim Jong-un’s cry for help

Pupils having their temperature taken in Pyongyang. Kim Won Jin/AFP/Getty

After two years of claiming it had no Covid cases, says Jean Lee in The New York Times, North Korea has finally acknowledged the inevitable. State media reported last month that an unspecified fever was spreading “explosively” across the country, and the nation promptly went into lockdown. Already, more than four million cases have been documented, as well as dozens of deaths. “But bad news does not escape North Korea without a reason.” Publicising the Covid situation is Kim Jong-un’s cry for help.

And “help is surely needed”. For most of the country’s 26 million residents, health standards are shockingly low and hospital facilities are threadbare: I’ve seen nurses dump syringes in a sink and rinse them in disinfectant for reuse. Doctors advise patients to eat garlic to ward off flu because they have no medicine to offer. In winter, staff and patients “bundle up in heavy quilted jackets” because heating is reserved for operating theatres. While China has sent Covid vaccines to Pyongyang, the US is pointedly refusing to court Kim. During a visit to South Korea, Joe Biden was asked if he had a message for the dictator. He replied: “Hello. Period.” He’s missing an opportunity. Helping North Korea is a chance to assist a struggling population and re-engage in much-needed nuclear negotiations. Biden should swallow his pride. “The United States risks being excluded from a rare political opening.”