COVID-19 pandemic in North Korea
|COVID-19 pandemic in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea|
|First outbreak||Wuhan, Hubei, China|
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|History of North Korea|
|North Korea portal|
There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in North Korea. In January 2020, the North Korean government began taking extensive measures to block the outbreak, including quarantine facilities, and strict travel restrictions. In March and April 2020, the Asia Times and 38 North reported that these measures seemed largely successful.
Although the North Korean government has not reported any confirmed cases, some foreign analysts believe that the virus spread there by March 2020. It was reported that about 180 soldiers had possibly died from COVID-19 symptoms in January and February 2020, and that doctors had been told to not discuss COVID-19 as to not damage the reputation and image of Kim Jong-un.
North Korea borders China and South Korea, two countries with early outbreaks. China is North Korea's closest ally, most important trading partner, and a source of tourists. The Chinese-North Korean border is porous, in contrast to 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.
Diplomatically and economically isolated, 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. In March 2020, there was concern that widespread malnutrition could exacerbate the spread of COVID-19. In April, North Korean public health official Pak Myong-su said that if the disease spread in North Korea "a serious disaster could not be avoided". The North Korean government is secretive and the media are tightly controlled, making it difficult for observers to determine what is going on in the country.
Historically, North Korea has restricted travel in the face of epidemics abroad, such as SARS in 2003 and the West African Ebola virus epidemic in 2014. It eradicated measles in 2018. Its government is 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.
North Korea was one of the first countries to close borders due to COVID-19. Starting from 23 January, North Korea banned foreign tourists, and all flights in and 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 Korean Central News Agency declared a "state emergency" and reported the establishment of anti-epidemic headquarters around 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.
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, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un called for stronger measures to be taken to prevent COVID-19 from spreading to North Korea.
In early February, the North Korean government took severe measures to block the spread of COVID-19. Rodong Sinmun, the Workers' Party of Korea newspaper, reported that the customs officials at Nampo 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. Schools were closed throughout the country; university students in Pyongyang from elsewhere in the country were confined to their dormitories.
Although South Korean media reported the epidemic had spread to North Korea, the WHO said there were no indications of cases there. On February 18, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of North Korea’s ruling party, quoted a public health official reiterating that there had been "no confirmed case of the new coronavirus so far". The WHO prioritised aid for North Korea, including the shipment of protective equipment and supplies.
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 from complications of "high fevers stemming from pneumonia, tuberculosis, asthma or colds", while about 3,700 soldiers were under quarantine.
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.
On 14 March, North Korea state media reported there were still 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 the new Pyongyang General Hospital was underway the day prior on Tuesday 17 March. Kim 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.
Outside organizations provided aid to 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.
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 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.
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 missile tests "extremely inappropriate" in light of the pandemic.
In February and March, U.S. officials observed a decrease in military activity in North Korea, which they 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".
In mid March, 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 1 April, North Korean public health official Pak Myong-su stated that North Korea had no cases of the virus. 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 23 April, it was reported that the country had conducted 740 COVID-19 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.
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.
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. On 23 April, US analyst website 38 North reported that North Korea's early and extensive response appeared to be successful in containing the virus.
The British Embassy in Pyongyang was closed temporarily from 27 May and all diplomatic staff left the country. 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 sustain the operation of the Embassy.
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.
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.
On July 25, Kim Jong-un attended an emergency meeting after a suspected COVID-19 case was reported in the city of Kaesong. Kim declared a state of emergency and imposed a lockdown on the city. The suspected case was reported to be an individual who had defected to South Korea three years earlier, before returning to North Korea. According to a South Korean senior health official, the individual was neither registered as a COVID-19 patient nor classified as someone who came in contact with other patients. Two close contacts of the defector in South Korea tested negative for the virus. On August 5, Salvador said the returning defector was tested but the "results were inconclusive". On August 14, the three week lockdown in Kaesong and nearby areas was lifted by Kim Jong-un, after 'the scientific verification and guarantee by a professional anti-epidemic organisation'.
According to South Korean intelligence, in August a North Korean official was executed for violating COVID-19 restrictions by bringing goods to Sinuiju from across the Chinese border. South Korean intelligence officials also said that the North Korean government had locked down Pyongyang and had refused to accept 110,000 tons of rice from China for fear of letting the virus into the country.
Expatriates in North Korea became concerned about getting treatment for COVID-19 since the North Korean medical system was limited and it was difficult to seek treatment in China due to travel restrictions.
On September 22, the crew of a North Korean patrol boat killed a South Korean fisheries officer whom they encountered off their coast and then torched his flotation device in compliance with COVID-19 emergency orders. Kim apologized to South Korea for the incident. In October, North Korean media said that the world was looking at North Korea with envy because of its virus-free status, but at the same time warned against complacency. In the same month, there was a spike in people tested and quarantined, possibly related to celebrations on October 10.
In November 2020, Daily NK reported that there had been a spike of residents in quarantine facilities with COVID-19 symptoms, and that at least 80,000 non-military residents had been quarantined in total by then, although the country has continued to maintain that it did not have any confirmed cases. A source to Daily NK reported that some residents were suspecting a government cover-up, and that doctors were being ordered to not discuss COVID-19 as to not "damage the image" of Kim Jong-un.
By January 2021, North Korea's borders had been closed for one year. According to South Korean analysis, trade between North Korea and China had fallen by 76%.
In April 2021, Russian diplomats in Pyongyang said that North Korea had "total restrictions that are unprecedented in their severity" as well as severe shortages. According to the diplomatic mission, many foreign diplomats had left the country, leaving less than 290 foreigners in North Korea, including only nine ambassadors and four chargés d'affaires. Later that month, Kim Jong-un said North Korea was facing its "worst-ever situation" in reference to the economic downturn due to the coronavirus; he called for the party to wage another Arduous March to fight the severe economic difficulties.
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