North Korea scrambles to contain coronavirus outbreak while trying to flex its power

China and Russia on Thursday blocked a U.S. attempt in the United Nations Security Council to punish North Korea for testing missiles that are banned by previous resolutions by the council. North Korea’s tests this week of ballistic missiles, including one that Pyongyang says can reach the east coast of the U.S., coincide with its first major outbreak of COVID-19. Nick Schifrin reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This afternoon, the U.S. confirmed that North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile earlier this week. That announcement was made in the Security Council, where China and Russia vetoed a resolution that would have imposed new sanctions on North Korea.

    All of this coincides with the country's first admitted outbreak of COVID-19.

    Nick Schifrin has the story.

    Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: The provisional agenda for this meeting is nonproliferation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In New York today, a failed attempt to further isolate North Korea.

  • Linda Thomas-Greenfield:

    We cannot let this become the new norm. We cannot tolerate such dangerous and threatening behavior.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Security Council rejected a U.S.-led resolution to sanction North Korea and deliver humanitarian aid, because of Russian and Chinese vetoes.

    Through a translator, Chinese Ambassador said sanctions would punish the people of North Korea, whose official acronym is DPRK.

    Zhang Jun, Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations (through translator): Additional sanctions against DPRK would only add to the misery of the DPRK people and, in this sense, neither right nor humane.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The vote was a response to North Korea's testing three missiles on Tuesday, including what the U.S. says was the sixth intercontinental ballistic missile launch just this year.

    The response wasn't only diplomatic. Hours after the North Korean test, South Korea and the U.S. launched short-range missiles and displayed dozens of American-made fighter jets. Already this year, the U.S. says North Korea has conducted 23 ballistic missile launches and is trying to build an arsenal that can survive a U.S. attack.

  • Jean H. Lee, Wilson Center:

    We have seen hypersonic missiles. We have seen submarine-launched missiles, so really making and creating missiles that are harder to detect.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jean Lee is a senior fellow at the Wilson Center and a former journalist based in Pyongyang. She says the tests' timing is no mistake.

  • President Joe Biden:

    President Yoon and I committed to strengthening our close engagement.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Immediately after President Biden's first Asia trip and a synchronized message from South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to North Korea.

  • Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korean President (through translator):

    President Biden and I shared serious concerns and agreed on the need to prioritize them over any other issue.

  • Jean H. Lee:

    It's hard not to see this as a kind of rebuke or response to that show of strength. Interesting that it wasn't timed to take place during the visit, but just after the visit

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What's the significance of waiting, I suppose, until Biden left?

  • Jean H. Lee:

    Perhaps there's a little bit of a signal there that he wants to raise tension, but I think he does eventually want to get back to negotiations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Four years after North Korea's last nuclear test, U.S. intelligence officials are also worried Pyongyang is excavating demolished tunnels at its nuclear testing site and preparing another test.

  • Jean H. Lee:

    The developments and advancements that every test makes in terms of those nuclear devices, they get more and more powerful each time. Each of these tests gets them closer to perfecting this technology, refining this technology.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But North Korea now faces a different test and the military a new mobilization.

    Last week, army medics helped treat what the country calls cases of fevers. Workers in hazmat suits spray buildings with disinfectant. Health workers visit residents suspected to be sick. And the equivalent of Dr. Fauci gives daily updates.

  • Ryu Yong Chol, North Korean State Emergency Epidemic Prevent Headquarters (through translator):

    We are aggressively broadcasting informative programs, as residents want to know about this epidemic disease clinical course in medicine treatment.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Those programs tell citizens to make gargles with salt, drink herbal tea, and take painkillers. And they promote homemade cures.

  • North Korean Resident (through translator):

    I disinfected the room with alcohol, burnt the plant mugwort, and circulated air. I think it can be treated like a regular cold.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    COVID is now openly discussed because Kim Jong-un himself declared a national emergency. North Korean officials say more than 2.5, 10 percent of the population, got sick.

  • Dr. Kee Park, Director, Korea Health Policy Project, Harvard Medical School:

    I think it's a major, major outbreak. And it's also nationwide, Nick. It is in every province of North Korea.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dr. Kee Park is a neurosurgeon who has been training North Korean doctors for more than a decade. He says the country's health infrastructure is ill-prepared.

  • Dr. Kee Park:

    I'm quite concerned about the capacity of the North Korean health system to absorb the surge of patients. I think there's just a handful of ventilators. I worry about things like oxygen, which is a critical component of treatment of this condition, and then basic medical needs like drugs, I.V. Fluids.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    North Korea had shut down its borders and, until recently, claimed zero COVID cases. But the country partially reopened this past January and increased trade with China.

    This week, officials said cases were dropping. But the population of North Korea is vulnerable; 40 percent are undernourished and nobody is known to be vaccinated.

  • Dr. Kee Park:

    You have got the virus that came in ripping through the country, and you have a population that was unprepared, in two ways, actually. One is, you have got a vulnerable population that's undernourished. On top of that, you have zero vaccination, and then no inherit immunity within the population.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So far, North Korea has rejected all offers of vaccines, including from the U.S. and U.N. But admitting a crisis might mean North Korea is open to receiving help, says Lee.

  • Jean H. Lee:

    To cement his legacy, that it would be a different focus for Kim Jong-un and that he would start looking at foreign policy.

    And I think that also means at looking for a way to signal to the outside world that he's ready to start engaging, that he's ready to start reaching out.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What North Korea is perhaps not ready for, fighting a virus that it's only now admitted it can't control.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

Listen to this Segment