COVID-19: N.Korea imported Chinese masks, ventilators before outbreak

Two weeks ago state media revealed the outbreak, fueling concerns about a lack of vaccines, medical supplies and food shortages

 A poster depicts an army member and a woman holding wheat in North Korea in this undated image released May 23, 2022 by the country's Korean Central News Agency. (photo credit: KCNA VIA REUTERS)
A poster depicts an army member and a woman holding wheat in North Korea in this undated image released May 23, 2022 by the country's Korean Central News Agency.
(photo credit: KCNA VIA REUTERS)

In the months before it acknowledged its first official COVID-19 outbreak, North Korea suddenly imported millions of face masks, 1,000 ventilators, and possibly vaccines from China, trade data released by Beijing showed.

Two weeks ago state media revealed the outbreak, fueling concerns about a lack of vaccines, medical supplies and food shortages. Chinese data show that even before that announcement, the North had begun stocking up.

North Korea is not known to have conducted any significant COVID-19 vaccine campaign. In February, however, China exported $311,126 worth of unidentified vaccines to its neighbor, according to the data released this month. China reported no other vaccine exports to North Korea for any other month this year, or all of last year.

Purchases from January to April

From January to April, the last month for which data is available, the North bought more than 10.6 million masks from China, having bought none in December 2021.

 : A woman receives protective face masks while she waits in line at a food bank at St. Bartholomew Church, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Elmhurst section of Queens, New York City, New York, US, May 15, 2020.  (credit: REUTERS/BRENDAN MCDERMID/FILE PHOTO) : A woman receives protective face masks while she waits in line at a food bank at St. Bartholomew Church, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Elmhurst section of Queens, New York City, New York, US, May 15, 2020. (credit: REUTERS/BRENDAN MCDERMID/FILE PHOTO)

In those four months, China also exported nearly 95,000 thermometers, more than 33 times than the total amount of 2021. 

China exported 1,000 non-invasive ventilators to North Korea in April, worth $266,891, as well as laboratory supplies that could be used in COVID-19 test kits. Other medical imports included rubber gloves and protective clothing.

Overall China’s exports to North Korea hit $98.1 million in April, the highest since January 2020 when the figure was $186.8 million.

North Korea shut its borders to nearly all trade for most of the pandemic, only recently allowing a trickle of supplies and products into the country on trains and ships from China.

Three aircraft from North Korea's Air Koryo arrived in China and returned to Pyongyang last week carrying medical supplies, a diplomatic source said.