04.08.2020 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Is the Coronavirus in North Korea, and if so, How?


On July 26, 2020, North Korea reported for the first time a case of a person suspected of having COVID-19. According to the Korean Central News Agency, a person with suspected virus symptoms “illegally crossed” the border of the DPRK on July 19. He was detected in Kaesong City, which is located close to the border with South Korea. His tests showed an inconclusive result. After that, the person was immediately isolated and an investigation to track into his previous contacts opened up. Kaesong City was immediately locked down during the second half of July 24, and those who visited it during the last five days were sent to quarantine.

Thus, the first officially confirmed case of COVID-19 might well appear in the DPRK.

The South Korean authorities first “tried to affirm the statement made by Pyongyang”, on the pretext that considering the large number of defectors in the country, it would be virtually impossible to trace their movements in real-time. Like other South Korean citizens, they do not inform the authorities when they travel abroad.

But then, reports emerged in the media and elsewhere that the authorities are looking for a 24-year-old resident in Gimpo, surnamed Kim, who fled the North in 2017 and has been under police investigation over suspicion of raping a female defector since June 2020. Kim used to appear on YouTube channels belonging to other defectors, telling how it took him over seven hours to swim over to the South.

A little later, on July 27, it turned out that Kim could have crossed the border to the North in Ganghwa County in the city of Incheon, going through a drain that runs under a barbed-wire fence. Then he could swim across the Han River, where the distance between the southern and northern banks varies from 1.3 to 2.5 km.  His bag and personal documents belonging to the refugee were found near the drain entrance. The receipts confirming that he exchanged 48 million won for dollars “including a 15 million deposit for an apartment provided by the government for defectors, a 20 million government employment subsidy for defectors, and some more after selling his car to illegal secondhand dealers” were also discovered.

It turned out at the same time, on the day before he escaped, on July 18, Kim’s acquaintance, also a defector and YouTuber Kim Jin-Ah, reported to the police about his plan to run away to the North, but her report was ignored. He given explanation was they were not in charge of the matter. At the same time, the version that Kim was infected was rejected by Seoul. Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health official, stated on July 27 that Kim “is neither registered as a COVID-19 patient nor classified as a person who came in contact with virus patients.” Yoon also stated that the virus tests conducted on two people who had close contact with the defector proved negative.

On July 28, South Korea’s Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo apologized for failing to prevent a North Korean defector from crossing the heavily guarded border to the North. For what it’s worth, the security forces of the Republic of Korea were harshly criticized, as were the army and the police, which only got the news about runaway when it was announced by the North. If the acquaintance’s claim is true, the police should be held accountable for their negligence. Defectors are subject to police protection for their personal security for five years upon their arrival in the South.

According to conservative mass media, “The Moon Jae-in government should take radical measures to better manage North Korean defectors and stop anyone from making an illegal bid to go back to the North. It also must strive to boost military discipline and its vigilance in border areas.”  “Whenever the military fails to detect an illegal crossing, they vow to prevent a recurrence.  However, similar incidents keep happening. The holes that make the border porous must be identified and filled.”

As a result, on July 29, the Ministry of Unification announced that it was considering seeking the defector’s extradition as Kim was accused of raping.

The author would like to share the following views:

  • Although at the time of writing, the evidence of being infected has not yet been fully confirmed, the North Korean authorities are planning out the worst-case scenario and are ready to lock down one of its important cities. Then, we’ll see how capable the government is to repeat the experience of Wuhan and cope with the challenge to supply a fully closed city having a totally different level of resources available.
  • So far, the DPRK is being propped up by quarantine initiatives since because of sanctions and red tape, they do not have the opportunity to test the population en masse. The official representative of the World Health Organization told NK News on July 21 that since the beginning of the global pandemic, 1,117 people have been tested for the virus, which tested negative. With only 12,500 test kits having been pledged to the North by international organizations since January 2020, which is a very small amount for a country of 25 million. Let’s hope that they will be able to contain the outbreak inside (if the test ends up to be positive) the same way as they keep the borders.
  • The fact that Kim was not immediately detained on the territory of the DPRK may be related to a rotation of troops on their side of the DMZ happening after June aggravation. What’s interesting is the border turns out to be phenomenally permeable on the Southside, continuing the tradition of incidents when a fugitive North Korean soldier reached a South Korean checkpoint, and his arrival was only known when he knocked on the door of the building where border guards were sitting, and boats with North Korean or Chinese refugees reached the coast unnoticed. Moreover, this defector “was caught on the military’s surveillance equipment”, but he was not identified as a person trying to cross the border. After all, not only defectors but also sabs can easily go back and forth.
  • It is unlikely, but not impossible, that the North may take this story as a deliberate attempt to bring a virus into the country. In March, citizens were warned that “floating things in the sea” can be dangerous, and June aggravation (now the Republic of Korea’s media write about this almost open) was associated with the alleged threat of infected leaflets to be spread in North Korea.

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”.

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