While Coronavirus has officially reached 28 countries, with over 40,000 people officially infected and over 900 fatalities, North Korea – which has a woefully ill-prepared medical infrastructure, is concealing a massive outbreak of the disease, according to the Daily Beast.
There have been reports filtering out about North Koreans falling prey to coronavirus despite Kim Jong Il sealing its 880-mile border with China, “most of it along the Yalu River into the Yellow Seat to the west,” as well as its 11-mile border with Russia.
One sure sign of the regime’s fears is that it failed to stage a parade in central Pyongyang on Saturday, the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the country’s armed forces. Last year, Kim Jong Un himself presided over the procession that displayed the North’s latest missiles and other fearsome hardware along with goose-stepping soldiers in serried ranks.
This year, nothing about the nation’s nuclear warheads, much less the “new strategic weapon” that Kim has vowed to unveil. Rodong Sinmum, the newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party, merely cited the armed forces’ supposed success combating “severe and dangerous difficulties”—and said nothing at all about the parade. –Daily Beast
South Korean news outlet Daily NK, meanwhile, reported that five people had died in the northwestern city of Sinuiju – which borders the key trade border town of Dandong, the largest Chinese city in the region located along the Yalu River. The Daily, relying on sources within North Korea, reports that authorities had “ordered public health officials in Sinuiju to quickly dispose of the bodies and keep the deaths secret from the public.”
The novel Coronavirus is suspected to have crossed into North Korea via the porous Yalu River border despite attempts to quarantine the country.
One of the first patients in North Korea reportedly was hospitalized in Sinuiju “with symptoms similar to a cold and was given fever reducers and antibiotics,” said Daily NK, but the patient died as the fever rose. Two more patients died two days later in another hospital in Sinuiju and another two in a nearby town.
North Korea’s worries about an epidemic are all the more intense because of its shortage of basic medicine and equipment. As cases mount, authorities are working feverishly to contain a disease that, if unchecked, could undermine Kim’s grip over his 25 million people, most of whom live in poverty worsened by hunger. –Daily Beast
“Because health conditions and health care in North Korea are so bad,” according to Rand corporation analyst Bruce Bennett, who added “they cannot allow the replication process to develop without severe intervention” – i.e. they need to take drastic measures to halt the spread, now.
According to Bennett, North Korea has to “rapidly contain any leakage—exactly what they are trying to do by preventing people-to-people contacts.”
That’s virtually impossible, however, as long as people move illicitly across the border, carrying on low-level commerce in the need to survive a decrepit system. JoongAng Ilbo, a leading South Korean newspaper, cited anonymous source saying that a woman had been diagnosed in the capital and that all those with whom she had had contact had been quarantined.
Unlike in China, North Korea officially has denied any cases while attempting to get people to cooperate in stopping the spread of the disease. JoongAng Ilbo quoted a North Korean health official, Song In Bom, as having called on North Korean TV for “civil awareness” and unity in dealing with the disease while assuring his audience there had so far been no cases. –Daily Beast
According to Rodong Sinmun, the regime has just streamlined an operational headquarters to battle the disease, and have activated 30,000 workers to combat the epidemic. NK’s Central News Agency has reported that the headquarters have ordered coronavirus tests for everyone entering Pyongyang via road, and anyone who has traveled outside the country. Foreign-workers in Pyongyang, including diplomats or NGOs, have been temporarily banned from venturing outside or shopping.
“I believe absolutely nothing of what I’m hearing from Pyongyang,” said former senior US diplomat, Evans Reverre, who specializes in North Korea issues.
“It simply defies credibility that a country with a grossly inadequate public health infrastructure and a malnourished population, a country that depends on China for some 90 percent of its trade, and a country that had until recently opened itself up to a major influx of Chinese tourists in order to earn foreign exchange has avoided having a lot of victims,” he added. “The total closure of the border and other measures Pyongyang has taken reflect a real sense of emergency in the North about the threat.”
“I can’t help but think it may also reflect panic if the number of patients is growing,” he said.
Victor Cha and Marie DuMond of the Center for Strategic and International Studies – a DC think tank, wrote that “the coronavirus arguably poses a unique threat to North Korea” because while “The regime’s relative isolation from the international community hinders the widespread penetration of many diseases from abroad … the porous nature of the border with China and frequent travel is a clear vector for the virus’ transmission.”
Thus, “If there are reports of the virus inside of North Korea, we should expect that the virus would spread rapidly given the state’s inability to contain a pandemic.”
It may be too late, however:
“Several suspected coronavirus infections have occurred in North Korea even though it shut all its borders,” said Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s biggest-selling newspaper, citing anonymous sources. “The infections most likely spread through porous parts of the border with China that see plenty of smuggling and other clandestine traffic,” said the paper, reporting suspected cases among those “engaged in smuggling between the North and China.”
“Bottom line,” said Steve Tharp, who’s been analyzing North Korean affairs as both an army officer and civilian expert for many years here, “the coronavirus has tightened up sanctions enforcement more than any other measure over the years because the North Koreans are actually self-enforcing the sanctions, against their will, through the tight closing of their borders in order to save the regime from being wiped out by this human pandemic coming.”
According to Tharp, North Korean leaders “understand very well that this pandemic would rip through their population and be much more dangerous in North Korea than other places because of their inadequate medical infrastructure and the low resistance disease of the general population after so many years of surviving under near-starvation conditions.”