In the second half of September of this year, an epidemic of African swine fever (ASF) seems to have begun in South Korea.
Despite the fact that this disease does not pose a risk to humans, it has earned its name (swine fever) for a reason, since a highly pathogenic strain of ASF is 100% fatal. There are no medicines to treat this sickness. And the only way to prevent an epidemic is to impose tough quarantine restrictions, and to kill any potentially infected pigs in order to stop the disease from spreading. There have been no recorded cases of humans contracting this illness. However, scientists believe it is possible, as the virus is evolving in an unpredictable manner and the number of its strains can increase.
In summer 2018, the ASF virus was first detected in Asia: in the Liaoning province in the PRC. Soon it spread to other regions of China (including Hong Kong), and then crossed the border to reach neighboring nations, such as Mongolia and Vietnam.
In spring 2019, the virus was detected in North Korea. Later, the DPRK informed the World Organisation for Animal Health about the outbreak of African swine fever in Usi County in Chagang Province, a region bordering the PRC in the north of the nation.
South Korea’s quarantine and inspection agency was concerned that the ASF virus could be spread to the country by wild boars that cross the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Hence, on 31 May, Deputy Spokeswoman of ROK’s Ministry of Unification Lee Yoo-jin stated that the Republic of Korea was prepared to cooperate with the North to prevent any further spread of the disease. However, no actions were subsequently taken. According to one version of events, no progress was made because of bureaucracy, especially once it became apparent that South Korea was in no danger of an epidemic. Another version claimed that a decision had been made not to rush to help, as the virus could make the situation with food supplies in North Korea even worse, which would make Pyongyang more willing to compromise in exchange for food. In addition, at the time the efforts to restore inter-Korean relations lost steam.
Incidentally, from 12 to 18 June 2019, South Korea’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs conducted inspections to ensure that quarantine measures to prevent the spread of swine fever were in place.
In summer 2019, there was another outbreak of the disease in China. As a result, in July, the number of pigs in the country fell by 32.2%, and in August, the price of pork increased by 46.7%.
Finally, on 17 September, the first outbreak of swine fever occurred in the Republic of Korea. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs confirmed that the virus was detected on the Yandong farm in Paju, a city in Gyeonggi Province. On 18 September, the second case of African swine fever was recorded on a farm in Yeongjung-myeon (in Gyeonggi Province), located 48 km from the city of Paju, where a day earlier the first case of infection with the ASF virus had been confirmed. According to the Ministry’s spokesperson, the epidemiological link between the farm in Yeongjung-myeon and that in the city of Paju had already been established. Still, six sub-divisions of Gyeonggi Province were labelled as potential infection risk zones.
Incidentally, on the very same day (i.e. on 18 September 2019), it was confirmed that African swine fever was detected in Amurzet, a locality in Russia’s Oktyabrsky District of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, where, earlier, the first case of the infection had been recorded near the locality of Dezhnevo.
On 19 September, South Korea’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs lifted the ban that prohibited the transportation of livestock within the nation. However, movement of livestock from regions where cases of African swine fever were recorded to other areas of the country was still not permitted. The Ministry of Unification informed North Korea about the outbreak and proposed that the two sides cooperate on this issue.
On 21 September, a spokesperson of ROK’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs announced that the farms where infections with the virus were confirmed and their neighboring farms had to kill all the pigs within a 3-kilometer radius of ground zero. Four cities and two sub-divisions were included in the potential infection risk zone. There are 442 pig farms and approximately 710,000 pigs in this area.
The fifth case of African swine fever was recorded on a farm on Ganghwa Island, which lies approximately 60 kilometers to the west of Seoul. It was the first suspected case outside of Gyeonggi Province.
On 23 September, another infection with the ASF virus was confirmed on a pig farm in the city of Gimpo-si, in Gyeonggi Province.
On 24 September, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon took part in a meeting organized by the disaster and emergency operation center, where he said that the measures taken to prevent the spread of African swine fever were not sufficient and urged that they be strengthened. A ban that prohibits the transportation of pigs within the nation for 48 hours then came into effect.
On 26 September, the ninth case of African swine fever was recorded in the locality of Hae Cheon-myeon in the Ganghwa-gun county of the city of Incheon.
As of 27 September, almost 30,000 pigs in the nation were deemed to be at risk of infection, and it is expected that all together at least 60,000 will be killed.
South Korea’s media outlets have reported that nine cases in less than two weeks are a cause for concern and may signal the start of a country-wide epidemic, as the rate at which the disease has been spreading is higher than in neighboring nations. Possibly, the issue is that most pig farms are located not far from each other, and that a limited number of vehicles was used to move livestock.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, transportation means that came to the farm, where the first case had been recorded, then stopped at 3 other places. These vehicles were used for bringing pigs to slaughter houses, delivering feed and removing feces and other waste. However, the Ministry is careful not to jump to conclusions and attribute the spread of the disease to means of transportation. The incubation period of African swine fever should also be taken into account.
Local governments have either postponed or cancelled a number of events (even excursions and festivals) because of the spread of the virus. Even the Korean International Ceramic Biennale was cancelled. It is the only international ceramic art and crafts festival in the world, and in 2017, it attracted more than 600,000 visitors. Moreover, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification scaled down the ceremony to mark the 1-year anniversary of the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang. It had been scheduled to take place on 19 September at the Torasan railway station in the city of Paju in Gyeonggi Province. And the ceremony itself was moved to another location: the building that houses the Ministry of Unification in Seoul.
Pigs are being killed within a 3-kilometer radius from the farms where cases of African swine fever had been confirmed. Animal rights activists have already condemned the authorities for the inhumane slaughter of animals possibly infected with the African swine fever virus, which are essentially being put to sleep with the help of carbon dioxide and then buried alive. The protesters have stated that the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs “ignored Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)” that require the “slaughter in cases of prevention of diseases” to minimize pain the animals experience. They have also provided a video as proof, which shows still conscious and squirming animals being dumped into a pit.
If we were to make some preliminary conclusions, the following story emerges. North Korea has been informing and updating its neighbor about the epidemic of African swine fever in the DPRK, and although South Korea stated it was willing to help, any efforts to do so drowned in bureaucracy. Such a situation is also typical of inter-Korean negotiations on healthcare that involve cooperation between the two governments and not the work of non-governmental organizations. Let us not forget the fate of the negotiations on supplying North Korea with flu drug Tamiflu, which began in January 2019 but did not bear any fruit.
And now the Republic of Korea has its own outbreak. All the existing infection risk zones are in regions near the border with the DPRK, which supports the hypothesis that the infection had spread from North Korea.
Now everything depends on Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon, who has gained a reputation of a good crisis manager. Earlier, he had successfully dealt with an outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome and forest fires in the eastern parts of the country. However, if he cannot handle the current situation, increased prices of pork and the negative effect on the nation’s agriculture (African swine fever can ravage entire livestock farms) could cause problems for Moon Jae-in. After all, the President’s approval rating is already at less than 50% due to economic and foreign policy issues plaguing the nation.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.