North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered officials to wage a tougher epidemic prevention campaign in “our style” after he turned down some foreign Covid-19 vaccines offered via the U.N.-backed immunization program.

Why would North Korea refuse the vaccines offered via an U.N. backed program? Is it because they don't trust the U.N.? Is it because of some other issues? I can't think of a good reason to refuse especially if it's free. Is it likely that they're going to accept, but not publicly in order to save face or something along that line?


3 Answers 3


The reason they gave was that the shots should be relocated to harder hit nations. They have also stated before, and still maintain the position, that they do not have any COVID cases. If they were to accept the shots, that would indicate to the rest of the world that they probably do have cases, enough cases for them to want the shots, indicating to the rest of the world that they may be in a more precarious position than they had originally admitted.

If they were to take the shots, they would basically be admitting that they lied about their situation (which they probably wouldn't want to do), and also tell the rest of the world that they're in a vulnerable position.

I think another reason is that they also don't trust the vaccines. They also rejected the vaccines in July, "citing concerns over potential side effects, a South-Korean think-tank associated with the country's intelligence service said". This may be the best reason because they have allegedly shown interest in the vaccines from Russia.

By the way, I believe that the source you linked does imply, if not state, one of the suspected reasons.

  • 4
    First story (BBC) says that Russia says they've also turned down Russian vaccines, multiple times. Sep 4, 2021 at 5:58
  • 7
    With NK it's also possible the threat of Covid can be a useful form of extra social control, allowing even greater coercion about gathering and movement than usual. Sep 4, 2021 at 5:59
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: frankly, nobody knows what goes though the head of Kim Jong-un, so this is going to be hard to answer with anything but their official line... I mean, what's 3M dead to Kim if you can have another "Arduous March"... Sep 4, 2021 at 6:01
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    “If they were to accept the shots, that would indicate to the rest of the world that they probably do have cases” – well... no it wouldn't. All it would indicate is that they consider the possibility that they might get new cases in the future (whether from outside or by transmission within the country). Of course Kim may indeed reason that even this is admitting defeat, but... yeah, nothing there really makes sense. Sep 4, 2021 at 12:03
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    It's also worth pointing out that due to their lack of socialisation with the outside world and methods of dealing with confirmed infections, they may actually have a very low number of cases.
    – Valorum
    Sep 4, 2021 at 15:41

Because they want to tout the success of their self-isolation methods, which were strict long before COVID showed up. According to South China Morning Post:

Kee Park, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School who has made numerous humanitarian trips to North Korea, said he believed Pyongyang wanted to send the message that its self-imposed isolation had kept it safe. “Their confidence in their public health measures also allows them to take a more patient approach to see what, if any, issues arise with these new vaccines as they get rolled out,” Park said.

Donations were similarly rejected during the 1990s famine in North Korea:

During the 1990s, the North downplayed food shortages until a widespread famine that killed an estimated 240,000-3.5 million people forced it to seek international assistance. How will ‘emaciated’ Kim ride out a famine in North Korea? With China’s help 6 Jul 2021

“Saving face is a strong cultural motivator for Koreans,” said Dan Chung, executive director of Crossing Borders, a US-based Christian aid group that works with North Korean refugees. “Though it seems as if North Koreans are reaching out for help, a moment later they could indicate the exact opposite. This makes helping North Korea all the more complex.”

As a final note, Kim Jung Un and his senior leadership are well known for their lavish lifestyle so we could speculate that they're all secretly vaccinated already, making them care a lot less about how many vaccines are available for the rest of their citizens.

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    News from a couple of months ago was that South Korean intelligence was fairly sure Kim wasn't vaccinated abc.net.au/news/2021-07-09/… although with all the luxury stuff that's smuggled to him, despite the sanctions, a vaccine would be extremely small potatoes if he wanted one. Sep 4, 2021 at 23:12
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    Btw, this reminded me of the story with Latin/South America politicians getting secretly vaccinated (well ahead of the population); in Peru at least, and probably not just there. Probably in Brazil too, although not their president... Ecuador, Lebanon etc. Sep 4, 2021 at 23:20
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    @Fizz That reminds me of a placed called the United States of America.
    – emory
    Sep 6, 2021 at 1:23

Kim Jung Un's decision to refuse vaccines is difficult to explain but it is not that unusual. Perhaps he refused vaccines for the same reasons that Trump and Morrison refused vaccines.


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