COVID-19 pandemic in North Korea
|Origin||Wuhan, Hubei, China|
|‡ Suspected cases have not been confirmed as being due to this strain by laboratory tests, although some other strains may have been ruled out.|
There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in North Korea, though some foreign analysts believe that the virus has spread to the country. The North Korean government has taken extensive measures, including quarantines and travel restrictions, which US analyst website 38 North said appeared to be successful in containing the virus.
In July 2020, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported a suspected case of COVID-19 in Kaesong, near the border with South Korea. According to KCNA, the test result was "uncertain".
Background[edit source | edit]
North Korea is an impoverished country with a weak healthcare system and is subject to sanctions, rendering it vulnerable in the event of an outbreak. There is concern that widespread malnutrition could exacerbate the spread of COVID-19. North Korean public health official Pak Myong-su said that if the disease spread in North Korea, "a serious disaster could not be avoided".
Diplomatically and economically isolated, the country borders China, the starting point of the pandemic, which is North Korea's closest ally, most important trading partner, and a source of tourists.
North Korea's government is secretive and the media are tightly controlled, making it hard for outside observers to determine what is really going on in the country.
Historically, North Korea has restricted travel in the face of epidemics abroad, for instance during the 2014 Ebola epidemic. Moreover, the country has had success in disease eradication in the past; it reportedly eliminated measles in 2018. North Korea's government is highly totalitarian and maintains strict control over the country and its society, which experts anticipated could help in enforcing disease control measures such as social distancing. North Korea also has many doctors for its per capita GDP, though they are less skilled and equipped than their counterparts in the Western World and in South Korea, and a high level of public hygiene.
Some South Korean sources say the pandemic is steadily affecting the country. The virus is more likely to have come into North Korea from China, where the virus originated, than from South Korea. The Chinese-North Korean border restrictions are more relaxed than the heavily militarized border between North and South Korea. However, suspected COVID-19 cases in the two Chinese provinces (Liaoning and Jilin) bordering North Korea have been low.
Timeline[edit source | edit]
January — March 2020[edit source | edit]
Starting from 23 January, North Korea banned foreign tourists and all flights in an out of the country were halted. The authorities also started placing multiple suspected cases, those with slight symptoms such as flu in quarantine for two weeks in Sinuiju. On 30 January, North Korea's news agency KCNA declared a "state emergency" and reported the establishment of anti-epidemic headquarters around the country.
On 2 February, KCNA reported that all the people who had entered the country after 13 January were placed under "medical supervision". South Korean media outlet Daily NK reported that five suspected COVID-19 patients in Sinuiju on the Chinese border had died on 7 February. Within the same day, The Korea Times reported that a North Korean female living in the capital Pyongyang was infected. Despite no confirmation by North Korean authorities on the claims, the country implemented further strict measures to combat the spread of the virus. Schools were closed starting on 20 February. On 29 February, Kim Jong-un called for stronger measures to be taken to prevent COVID-19 from spreading to North Korea.
The South Korean-based Daily NK reported information from an informant inside North Korea's military on 9 March, stating that 180 soldiers had died in January and February while about 3,700 soldiers were under quarantine. On 14 March 2020, North Korea state media reported there were no confirmed cases in its territory. Kim Jong-un ordered the construction of new hospitals in the country on 18 March. North Korean state media also reported that groundbreaking on a new hospital was underway the day prior on Tuesday 17 March. Kim Jong-un reportedly told a newspaper linked to the ruling Workers' Party of Korea that the construction of new hospitals were being done for general improvement of the nation's healthcare system without mentioning COVID-19.
April — June 2020[edit source | edit]
On 1 April, North Korean public health official Pak Myong-su repeated the claim that North Korea has no cases of the virus. On 23 April, it was reported that the country had taken 740 coronavirus tests, and all of them came back negative. The same day, Daily NK reported that a defecting North Korean who was shot attempting to cross the Tumen River into China tested positive for the virus.
From mid to late April, restrictions on foreigners travelling in Pyongyang were relaxed, Nampo harbour was reopened to container ships, and the 14th Supreme People's Assembly with hundreds of delegates was held without the wearing of face masks.
In late May, UK ambassador to North Korea Colin Crooks stated that the British Embassy in Pyongyang was closed temporarily from 27 May and all diplomatic staff had left the country for the time being. According to a statement from the British Foreign Office, this was due to restrictions on entry to the country, making it a challenge to rotate staff and sustaining the operation of the Embassy.
July 2020[edit source | edit]
On July 1, a WHO official said a ban on public gatherings remained and people were required to wear masks in public. KCNA and Rodong Sinmun released images from a meeting on July 2 with Kim Jong-un and dozens of officials, none of whom were shown wearing masks. According to Dr. Edwin Salvador, the WHO's representative in North Korea, 922 people in the country were tested for COVID-19 and all had tested negative.
Response[edit source | edit]
North Korea was one of the first countries to close borders due to COVID-19. The government has implemented widespread travel restrictions, including closing the border to foreign tourists in late January 2020 and then suspending flights and banning travel in and out of the country. Though many parts of the border were closed, the bridge between Dandong and Sinuiju remained open and allowed supplies to be delivered. In late February, the North Korean government said that it would keep the border closed until a cure was found.
The possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak in North Korea is a concern to international organizations and observers due to the country's poverty and low-quality healthcare infrastructure. Outside organizations have provided aid to help the country fight the virus: the Russian government provided test kits, the WHO announced plans to send supplies despite the lack of confirmed cases, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, U.S. State Department, and South Korean government all indicated willingness to help. The U.S. government worked with the United Nations to make exceptions to sanctions, though they were also criticized for slowing down the process for providing aid. Doctors Without Borders said in late March that supplies of diagnostic equipment and personal protective equipment were stranded on the Chinese border.
In early February, the North Korean government took severe measures to block the spread of the coronavirus. Rodong Sinmun, the Workers' Party of Korea newspaper, reported that the customs officials at Nampho port were performing disinfection activities, including placing imported goods in quarantine. All international flights and railway services were suspended in early February, and connections by sea and road were largely closed over the following weeks.
In February, wearing face masks was obligatory and visiting public places such as restaurants was forbidden. Ski resorts and spas were closed and military parades, marathons, and other public events were cancelled.
North Korean citizens returning from other countries were subjected to a 40-day isolation period to which was added a 30-day "medical observation" period. According to North Korean media, nearly 7,000 North Koreans were subjected to these rules on 1 March.
According to the North Korean government, 10,000 people had been quarantined by the end of March. From 12 February, the 14-day quarantine on all foreigners (including their local staff) was extended to 30 days. Diplomats and other foreigners were evacuated to Vladivostok in March. By 27 March, according to North Korean media, there were only two foreigners in quarantine and 2,280 North Koreans were under "medical observation" in areas such as South Phyongan province and North Phyongan province, Ryanggang province, and the city of Rason.
The North Korean military fired five missiles on two occasions in early March 2020, which may be "an effort to ensure the country remains on the agenda for other nations amid the virus outbreak". More missile tests followed in late March, along with an announcement that the Supreme People's Assembly would meet in early April. Foreign observers said the government was trying to show confidence in their handling of the virus. The South Korean military called the provocation "extremely inappropriate" in light of the pandemic.
Kim Jong-un sent a letter to South Korean president Moon Jae-in as a show of support amidst the outbreak in South Korea. US President Donald Trump wrote a letter to Kim Jong-un to express his willingness to work with him on dealing with COVID-19. North Korean state media has reported on the severity of the outbreak in other countries.
On 31 March 2020, the Asia Times reported that North Korea's measures against the pandemic seemed largely successful. Edwin Salvador, WHO's representative in North Korea, reported that as of 2 April, 709 people had been tested, with no confirmed cases, and 509 people were in quarantine.
On 11 April, Kim Jong-un presided over a meeting of the Politburo of the Workers' Party of Korea. The meeting adopted a joint resolution by the Central Committee, State Affairs Commission and the Cabinet, "On more thoroughly taking national measures for protecting the life and safety of our people from the worldwide epidemic disease". The resolution called to take strict national countermeasures to thoroughly check the inroads of the virus due to the steady spread of the epidemic.
Impact[edit source | edit]
Although South Korean media shared news hinting at the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic to North Korea, the WHO denied the veracity of such claims. On 18 February, Rodong Sinmun quoted a public health official reiterating the country had had "no confirmed case of the new coronavirus so far". The WHO prioritised aid for North Korea, including the shipment of protective equipment and supplies.
Military[edit source | edit]
In early March, the North Korean government continued to deny that they had any cases of COVID-19. However, according to South Korean media outlet Daily NK, 180 soldiers had died. There was no estimate of those merely infected.
In February and March, U.S. officials observed a decrease in military activity in North Korea, believed to be a sign that there are COVID-19 cases in the country. General Robert B. Abrams observed that the North Korean military had "been on lockdown for about 30 days" and "didn’t fly an airplane for 24 days".
Political[edit source | edit]
The underground network that assists defectors in escaping North Korea has been almost unable to operate amidst strict controls implemented to stop the virus, with defection attempts being suspended. Defection rates had been declining already, probably due to increased security under the administrations of Kim Jong-un in North Korea and Xi Jinping in China. Between the start of April and end of June 2020, 12 North Korean defectors entered South Korea compared with 320 during the same period in 2019.
Economic[edit source | edit]
On 26 March, the New York Times reported satellite imagery shared by the Royal United Services Institute, which showed that the illicit trafficking of coal and other goods stopped, with the commercial vessels now idling in their home ports. After shutting its border, North Korea's official exports to China were worth $610,000 in March 2020, down 96% from the previous year.
See also[edit source | edit]
References[edit source | edit]
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[edit source | edit]
- Media related to COVID-19 pandemic in North Korea at Wikimedia Commons