The United States said on Friday that it would approve humanitarian assistance to North Korea to help international aid agencies fight the coronavirus there, amid fears that the impoverished country may be hiding an outbreak.

North Korea has not reported any cases of the new coronavirus. But in the past week, some South Korean news reports, citing unnamed sources within the secretive North, said there had been deaths in the country that were suspected to be related to the virus. The reports could not be confirmed.

North Korea shares a 930-mile border with China, where the coronavirus emerged, and has taken aggressive steps to prevent its spread, including suspending all flights and trains to and from China.

North Korea’s public health system remains dysfunctional, and the travel restrictions have made it more difficult for the North to buy or smuggle medicine, goods and other supplies from China. Relief organizations have complained that American-led U.N. sanctions have blocked them from quickly approving aid.

This week, the Red Cross called for a sanctions exemption allowing it to transfer money to its office in North Korea, describing it as “a lifesaving intervention.” It cited an urgent need for personal protective gear and testing kits to prepare for an outbreak in North Korea.

The United States has similarly expressed alarm, saying it would not stand in the way of such aid.

“The United States is deeply concerned about the vulnerability of the North Korean people to a coronavirus outbreak,” Morgan Ortagus, a State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement on Thursday.

She added that Washington encourages American and international aid groups to “counter and contain the spread of coronavirus” in the North.

Reporting and research was contributed by Sui-Lee Wee, Choe Sang-Hun, Amber Wang, Zoe Mou, Albee Zhang, Yiwei Wang, Claire Fu, Miriam Jordan and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs.



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