Earlier, the author believed that South Korea deserved to be commended for its efforts in combating African swine fever (ASF) within its borders, but the situation turned out to be more serious than previously thought.
The following paragraphs provide an incomplete record of the growing number of dead wild boars found not too far from ROK’s border with North Korea. On January 16, there were altogether 74 ASF cases among wild pigs. The aforementioned corpses had been found in South Korea’s Civilian Control Zone, stretching along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). By January 24, the number of infected wild boars rose to 106. And in subsequent months, the growth in the number of cases continued. On March 13, there were 366 infected animals in total, and according to the latest reports, the number of ASF cases was 612 on May 12.
Each of the corpses were buried and the places where they had been found disinfected. The authorities have been trying to solve this issue by building fences in the border zone in order to restrict the movement of wild boars and ensure they do not come in contact with domestic pigs.
In 2019 and this year, South Korea (the fourth largest consumer of pork in Asia) killed and buried more than 153,000 pigs, and also sent hundreds of soldiers and civilians to hunt wild boars near the border in order to prevent the disease from spreading and to keep pig farms safe. The last reported ASF case on a farm was on October 9.
During a meeting with reporters on February 13, Minister of Agriculture Kim Hyeon-soo said that “in order to allow the affected farms to resume operations, infections from wild boars” needed to at least slow down, and that at the given rates of increase, it was not the right time yet. Currently, there is no vaccine or cure against African swine fever and the disease is lethal for almost 100% of the animals. It is unclear from newspaper reports whether pig farms are still closed for business or not. As a rule, quarantine is lifted six months after the last known death, and a pig farm in an affected area is allowed to reopen a year after the restrictions have been eased.
In addition, in some aspects the cure turned out to be worse than the disease, as South Korean officials are facing criticism for allegedly causing damage “to the Imjin River ecosystem by spreading a toxic disinfectant along the North Korean border”. The “disinfectant solution that helicopters indiscriminately sprayed over parts of the Imjin River and the DMZ to stop the virus from traveling south” turned out to contain “quaternary ammonium compounds, also known as Quats”. They are “found in detergents and other household cleaning solutions”, and “some studies have shown that high concentrations” of such chemicals can be fatal to fish populations.
The problem came to light “after a group of local fishermen in Paju” had reported “a drastic drop in the Imjin River’s fish stocks”. According to The Korea Times article, “the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (MAFRA) ― which is in charge of the ASF quarantine ― immediately rebutted the fishermen’s claims that the drop in fishing stock could be related to the anti-ASF solution, saying it only used environmentally-friendly disinfectants” that decomposed easily after use and did not accumulate in living matter.
However, The Hankyoreh, a center-left daily newspaper, painted a different story in its follow-up report. According to the article, the disinfectant solutions sprayed over Paju and Yeongcheon starting at the end of September 2019 did contain Quats. This continued for a month “without proper oversight”, until finally the ministry became aware of the problem at the end of October, and “demanded local governments to provide more eco-friendly disinfectant solutions” based on citric acid.
The Korea Times contacted MAFRA officials but they “declined to comment on the matter, saying they were not ready to confirm the reports”. South Korea’s Ministry of Environment, on the other hand, stated it would test the Imjin River water for contamination, and it did not try to deny claims that “Quats had been released into the ecosystem”. However, the truth is that the story ended then and there – there were no further reports in the media about the topic. The tests are most likely still being conducted, and the focus of the discussion on the epidemic was skillfully turned to the possibility of a link between North Korea and the outbreak, and the effect of the disease on the DPRK if any.
It is unclear what the situation in North Korea is really like when it comes to ASF. On February 28, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that the DPRK was “strengthening efforts to prevent the African swine fever and other animal-related diseases”. According to the agency, “in an article entitled ‘Preventive measures against veterinary virus infection,’ the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that the country” was actively taking measures “to prevent the spread of African swine fever and avian flu”. KCNA also stated that Pyongyang’s veterinary quarantine center was “dispatching officials and experts to the provinces and strengthening the network so as not to miss out on the slightest symptoms and to respond right away”. It added that “observation posts to examine wild animals and birds” were being installed and “tests on domestic animals in farms” were being conducted.
On March 3, 2020, North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper also called “for greater efforts to tackle African swine fever and other animal diseases”.
Still, if there had indeed been an outbreak of ASF in the DPRK, it would have been possible to find out about it indirectly, for example, based on the price of pork or attempts to purchase it from China (where it is the most widely consumed type of meat). Hence, there is reason to believe that the outbreak originated in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a 4-km stretch of land that has essentially become a “nature reserve”. This region could also be where the disease spread as prearranging any activities, especially hunting, in the area is a very complex process. But questions that then arise are “How quickly are wild boars reproducing in that territory?” and “How many of them are there?”.
Since the answers remain unclear, some anti-Pyongyang propagandists have alleged that the DPRK has been waging a biological war against South Korea in such a manner. And according to them, even if infected wild boars happen to die on route to the south, this simply means that the authoritarian regime in the DPRK is incapable of coming up with a more rational military strategy.
There is an even more interesting theory. On May 7, a spokesperson for the National Institute of Environmental Research (NIER), affiliated with South Korea’s Ministry of Environment, made interim results of a study to investigate origins and spread of African swine flu public. The report, compiled by scientists from the institute, says that the virus genotype found in South Korea was the same as that prevalent in Russia and China. Although the genotype of North Korea’s ASF virus is not known internationally, the researchers speculated that the DPRK “may have played an intermediary role in spreading” it. Pyongyang’s veterinary authorities officially reported to the World Organization for Animal Health that ASF infections had been detected in May of last year.
However, this is not where the story started. The scientists from NIER stated that ASF “started to spread in Georgia” in 2007, and was then “transferred to central Russia” by wild boars. Outbreaks have started and ended every so often since then due to a large population of wild boars. In 2017, there was another outbreak of ASF in the Russian Federation, and then from 2018, the disease spread to Asia, including China, Mongolia and Vietnam.
If one were to view these facts in the same manner as was done earlier to allege involvement of the DPRK, it would be appropriate to mention a biolab in Georgia, which is supposedly developing bioweapons capable of not only targeting people but also economies. In addition, some enemies of the DPRK genuinely wish to see this nation “erased from the map of the world” by any means. After all, “ungentlemanly methods” can be used when it comes to countries viewed as pariahs. And the current expectation is that the Coronavirus, and not AFS, will finally lead to an economic collapse in the DPRK, which will, at first, result in famine and then a “democratic revolution”.
By misusing facts, it would be easy to postulate that certain interested parties are deliberately infecting wild boars so that they could spread the disease in North Korea. And, the negative impact on the ROK was all part of the cunning plan but then something went wrong, and the disease spread out of control. Such a theory can essentially be used as an explanation for any further developments.
From the point of view of the author, none of the above theories have been proven thus far. Nonetheless, he will continue monitoring the measures being taken to fight ASF, and perhaps, with time, there will be more clarity to the situation.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.