washington - Experts say North Korea is likely to dismiss almost all international anti-virus help, at least for now, despite its first acknowledged outbreak of suspected COVID-19 cases surging across the country.
The country is scrambling to deal with rapidly rising cases of COVID-19 symptoms as it announced 1.72 million patients with fevers and 62 deaths as of Tuesday via its official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
Pyongyang began monitoring North Koreans for the virus in late April. Last week, authorities reported a COVID-19 outbreak in the country. For more than two years prior to the admission, the regime insisted there were no cases in North Korea.
This came amid a global pandemic that began in early 2020 in China and as of Wednesday, has felled some 6.3 million people worldwide, more than 1 million of those deaths in the United States, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
Bruce Klingner, former CIA deputy division chief for Korea and a current senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, said the admission is "not yet" an outcry seeking help from the international community but a panic-stricken response to the uncontrollable spread.
"That final admission that they actually have cases now was because the situation became so dire that they can no longer ignore it or deny it," said Klingner.
"Given the hundreds of thousands of cases that they're announcing new each day, which may be just catching up from the first case apparently in late April, the situation was so bad they couldn't deny it was happening," Klingner said.
North Korea announced nearly 270,000 new cases on Tuesday and 232,880 additional cases on Wednesday.
Harry Kazianis, president of the newly developing think tank Rogue States Project, said, "What North Korea did was realize the news media was going to find out about the massive COVID outbreak and tried to get ahead of the story as opposed to looking like they were not acting with enough care or speed."
Regardless of motives behind Pyongyang's admission, Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, "North Korea's acknowledgement of COVID inside the country lays the groundwork for the first time in the crisis for North Korea to take outside help."
He continued, "It is not yet a message to South Korea or the U.S., but it has clearly generated a response that North Korean leaders may now consider."
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has not made a direct request from international humanitarian organizations for any help curbing the virus.
Pyongyang thus far has not responded to Seoul's offer for dialogue on anti-virus aid. The South Korean Ministry of Unification reached out to North Korea on Monday delivering a message asking to hold working-level talks on supplying vaccines, masks, and test kits to affected area.
Pyongyang, however, reportedly asked Beijing for help with medical supplies and equipment shortly after the outbreak, according to South Korea's Yonhap News Agency on Sunday.
Days after its first acknowledged outbreak, North Korea's Air Koryo planes flew to the Chinese city of Shenyang and returned to Pyongyang with medical supplies.
Robert Manning, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said ignoring Seoul's offer for help while accepting aid from Beijing "is, to some extent, a case of an authoritarian regime scared to show any weaknesses." He added, "But as this pandemic spreads, Kim may have no choice" but to ask for any help he could get.
VOA's Korean Service contacted North Korea's mission to the United Nations, asking if it will accept international anti-virus aid but did not receive a reply.
Excluding Beijing's help, North Korea has been trying to manage the spread of the virus on its own. It has mobilized masses in different sectors of the society including educational workers and soldiers, alongside public health officials, for a "brisk" prevention campaign to "swiftly curb" the spread.
Even before acknowledging the outbreak, North Korea resorted to its usual self-reliance or self-help to prevent the highly contagious virus from entering the country.
The regime maintained strict quarantine measures, sealing off its borders to fend off the virus. Any measures put in place, however, did not prevent the virus from spreading rapidly. The people of North Korea remain unvaccinated. Their leaders have rejected international offers of vaccines.
Klingner said, 'If North Korea continues to remain isolationist, continues to not prioritize the health and safety of its citizens, that reflects poorly on the regime.'
'Cry for help'
After two years of trying to shield the entire country from the world, Snyder said Pyongyang's acknowledged cases of the virus is also "a tacit admission" of its "inability" to "cope with the virus on its own."
Manning said, "It is in part a cry for help, but more profoundly, an acknowledgement of systemic failure and a situation spinning out of control."
Pyongyang's admission of the outbreak puts North Korea in a vulnerable state, according to Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA. He said Pyongyang's weakened state makes it hesitant to accept outside help.
Once it admitted to the outbreak, "North Korea is now in the weaker seat, and therefore, if it accepts outside assistance, then it potentially puts itself in a weaker negotiating position, at least from the way that it views it."
The international community may be asking if it could monitor aid deliveries and distributions, a move Pyongyang could consider as an intrusion.
To offset the perceived weakness, Gause said North Korea could resort to weapons tests.
"You often see North Korea, when it has to admit failure or show weakness in any way, will counterbalance it with a strong message, usually some sort of a test or something to say that 'we're still strong,'" said Gause.
Kazianis expects tests to come, especially a nuclear test that the U.S. and South Korea are expecting.
"The rise of COVID-19 cases makes certain a nuclear test will happen," he said.
"Kim wants to show the regime can still kill millions of people in minutes - even if millions of its own citizens have COVID-19," said Kazianis. "North Korea also needs to change the narrative to something more than a weak state that can't contain COVID, and a nuclear weapons test will achieve that."