Earlier, the author wrote an article about North Korea’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, whose spread within the nation was halted owing to its strict and unprecedented in nature public health measures. By the end of 2020, this topic has become even more politicized because a totalitarian regime is not meant to show better outcomes than those of democratic nations. Hence, the author has decided to report on the current situation in the DPRK.
It is worth remembering that North Korea closed its borders as soon as the pandemic began. The leadership also introduced a series of emergency containment measures including quarantine at border crossing points, medical check ups of DPRK residents and foreigners and their isolation under the supervision of medical professionals if necessary. At the start of the pandemic, travelers arriving in North Korea from abroad had to quarantine for 14 and then 30 days, while goods from other countries needed to be disinfected and stored for 10 days before entering the country. In addition, wearing masks became compulsory.
Starting in June 2020, nurseries, kindergartens as well as educational institutions started working again, and so did shops, stores and public catering and dining facilities.
On July 3, during a politburo meeting, Kim Jong-un had “called for maximum alert against the Coronavirus,” “warning that premature easing of anti-virus measures” would lead to an “unimaginable and irretrievable crisis”. On the same day, North Korea partially reopened its borders and rail freight transport between the DPRK, China and Russia resumed.
After Kim Jong-un’s speech in July, TV networks began broadcasting programs dedicated to domestic anti-COVID-19 measures once again, which they had stopped showing at the end of March. A special news show on the pandemic was also included in the daytime schedule of state TV stations.
On July 18, 2020, “North Korea announced that a domestically produced COVID-19 vaccine entered clinical trials”. According to The Korea Times, “the vaccine development was being led by a medical biology institute under the North’s Academy of Medical Science using angiotensin-converting enzyme 2” (ACE2).
Then it appeared as if all these strict measures failed as reports about a person suspected to have been infected with the novel Coronavirus in the city of Kaesong surfaced. They were referring to a North Korean individual who had defected to the ROK 3 years prior and then returned home on July 19, 2020. On July 26, local authorities said that the individual had been tested by an “anti-epidemic organization” for the novel Coronavirus but the “results were inconclusive.” On July 24, the North Korean leadership “ordered a lockdown” in Kaesong City. As of August 20, 1,004 people were “still under quarantine.” During the week prior to that, more than 3,700 individuals had been released, including the “first and second contacts of the suspected case in Kaesong”. Hence, the author concluded that it was a false alarm.
On October 20, 2020, the DPRK introduced a new Emergency Quarantine Law. According to the aforementioned article, the “Minju Choson newspaper ran a series of articles” about the new legislation, including detailed guidelines on dealing with patients who tested positive for COVID-19, and on the classification of emergency quarantine warnings and associated restrictions.
On November 3, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) told lawmakers that the DPRK had “taken extreme measures to fend off the Coronavirus including laying landmines in border areas with China”. Earlier, there had been reports by intelligence services about “North Korea’s unlawful shoot on sight orders” applicable to buffer zones on its borders.
During a politburo meeting of the Workers’ Party on November 16, 2020, Kim Jong-un discussed “COVID-19 and the state anti-epidemic situation and clarified the tasks for the Party, military and economic fields to further tighten the emergency anti-epidemic front”.
On November 30, 2020, DPRK’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that the country “was stepping up” its anti-epidemic measures along its borders, the Military Demarcation Line and at sea. In addition, strict rules for “collecting and disposing of sea garbage” were introduced to prevent the spread of the virus. North Korea also tightened restrictions at its shores, “including banning fishing and salt production at sea” as well as along border rivers.
On December 2, North Korea raised its alert level for the novel Coronavirus” to the highest level. The new rules required “restaurants, some stores, public bathhouses and other facilities to close down. Restrictions on movement were also introduced. DPRK officials at different levels have all the necessary means to communicate with their counterparts online. On the same day, “around 40 diplomats and humanitarian workers left North Korea”. The second group of several dozen expats had exited the DPRK in November. The departures were precipitated by the tightening of restrictions.
On December 7, embassies and representative offices of international organizations in North Korea received notifications from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the DPRK describing the “super-class” quarantine measures against COVID-19.
Direct as well as indirect evidence suggests that there have been no COVID-19 outbreaks in North Korea so far. Firstly, statements periodically issued by Edwin Salvador, the WHO’s representative in the DPRK, indicate that the nation has been sharing information with the international community in an honest manner. The number of COVID-19 cases in the country is still at zero, but other relevant data is also of interest here. From June to December 2020, the number of individuals who were tested for the novel Coronavirus increased from 922 to 10,260 and of those who were placed under quarantine – from 25,551 to 33,223 in the DPRK. The majority of people forced to isolate are workers at the Nampo sea port on the Yellow Sea and at the border crossing between Dandong (the PRC) and Sinuiju (North Korea), i.e. individuals who come into contact with goods that enter the DPRK. Others include medical staff stationed at quarantine facilities and involved in collecting samples and testing for COVID-19.
Russian diplomats in North Korea have also stated that there are no Coronavirus cases in the country. An article, written by In-hua Kim (a pseudonym for a defector writer) and published by NK News on July 1, 2020, also suggested that there had not been any outbreaks in the secretive nation.
In the author’s opinion, the DPRK leadership understands that if the novel Coronavirus were to start spreading in the country, its health care system might not be able to cope, primarily because a substantial portion of necessary medical equipment could remain on the list of sanctioned products. A number of articles published by western media outlets, suggested opting for a refusal to cooperate with the DPRK on COVID-19 because the nation’s leadership could use the battle against the Coronavirus as an excuse to receive technologies that might be employed later on to develop biological weapons, posing a further threat to the West.
At present, the key means of fighting the pandemic in North Korea, considering the state of its health care system, is the introduction of tough anti-virus measures. And although various rumors of landmines in border areas and on orders in buffer zones to shoot on sight have not always been substantiated, such actions are consistent with behavior usually exhibited by the North Korean leadership.
These preventive measures are accompanied by increased efforts to fight against corruption. One of the most notorious cases involves a medical school in Pyongyang, which was lambasted by Kim Jong-un for “non-socialist” practices: it was reported that officials at the institution had been nabbed for “diverting COVID drugs from the university hospital’s warehouse and selling them at exorbitant prices to patients with symptoms”.
On November 8, RIA Novosti wrote, citing South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), that a high ranking customs official from Sinuiju detained for breaking existing rules by facilitating the entry of goods into the DPRK had been executed.
In the opinion of critics, North Korea is more concerned with ramping up its propaganda campaigns and introducing improved hygiene measures (such as disinfecting public transport) rather than with improving its health care system. However, during an interview with TASS, Pak Myung-su, a North Korean public health official, stated that the country had stocked up on necessary medicines, equipment, face masks, ventilators, digital thermometers and disinfectants.
Construction of the Pyongyang General Hospital also started. The impressive medical facility was meant to be completed in time for the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Workers’ Party of Korea on October 10, but there has been no news about the opening for a couple of reasons, in the author’s opinion. Firstly, after the DPRK was hit by typhoons, there was an urgent need to provide housing for tens of thousands of families in the nation. The second reason has to do with equipment availability.
The North Korean leadership continues to stress the importance of anti-virus measures being taken, which are periodically discussed at the highest levels.
So has the DPRK received any help from the outside? South Korean NGOs (but NOT the government) have been making the biggest deliveries to the North to help it combat the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, at the beginning of May 2020, hand sanitizers were delivered to the DPRK. On June 17, the ROK filed an exemption request with the Sanctions Committee (DPRK) of the UN Security Council in order to be able to deliver to the North disinfectants, PPEs and COVID-19 test kits worth some 800 million won ($667,000). On July 29, the committee granted permission to UNICEF to deliver shipments of medical equipment essential for its “operations in the DPRK focused on mitigating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.” They include oxygen concentrators, patients ventilators and resuscitation kits (for facilitating the resuscitation of adults, children and newborns in all types of environments). The deliveries are to be completed by July 24, 2021. On August 21, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification approved the request from an NGO that wished to send aid to the DPRK, mainly PPEs (worth $150,000). Earlier, on August 6, the Ministry gave a private organization approval to send 300 million won ($253,368) worth of protective face masks and other COVID-19-related equipment to North Korea.
According to ROK’s Ministry of Unification, from March 31 to August 12, 2020, the government approved a number of requests from NGOs wishing to send pandemic-related aid to the North worth 1.76 billion won ($1.5 million), but the DPRK refused this assistance. Perhaps its officials declined the help because China and Russia have been helping the nation unofficially. In addition, they could have been worried about viral spread via the inter-Korean border. In the author’s opinion, DPRK’s reluctance to cooperate in this regard with the ROK is due to the current level of distrust between the two Koreas. Unfortunately, there have been a number of examples recently, when the South Korean side made lofty statements about initiatives, which failed to materialize perhaps on account of bureaucracy as in reality, the ROK government was not anxious to help out.
It is also not possible to count on the aid from international organizations. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that the organization had collected only 5% of the money necessary for the DPRK to stop the spread of COVID-19, i.e $1,800,000 out of $39,700,000 actually required.
From January 31 to December 8, 2020, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement delivered COVID-19 supplies worth $700,000 to North Korea, of which only $330,00 were assigned to healthcare. The North accepted shipments of kitchen supplies, 5,000 blankets, 1,000 units of hygiene products and 1,000 water bottles for the maintenance of thousands of people in quarantine facilities.
The DPRK has paid dearly for all of the preventive measures. And clearly, they have dealt a blow to the country’s economy, which was already affected by sanctions against the nation as well as the consequences of the destructive typhoons.
Still, it is not easy to estimate the damage to it. The only thing that the author could state with any degree of certainty is that the DPRK continues to battle the spread of Coronavirus effectively and will hopefully continue to do so.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.