Alas, this has happened and the author begins a series of articles on what the situation looks like at the moment, as well as on the likely causes and consequences of this fact.
The chronology of events so far is roughly as follows: no cases of coronavirus infection have been officially reported in the country since the pandemic began. In July 2020, authorities reported a suspected case of the disease in a man who had crossed the border illegally. Kim Jong-un called an emergency meeting of the politburo. All those in contact with the probable case were quarantined, but in the end it turned out to be a common acute respiratory viral infection.
On April 8, 2022, the World Health Organization released information on the status of the COVID-19 epidemic in North Korea: some 2,700 people with near-coronavirus-like symptoms, health workers and customs and border officials were tested between March 17 and 31. All the tests were negative.
In April 2022, cargo train traffic on the route between the Chinese city of Dandong and the North Korean border town of Sinuiju, which began in January, was suspended, apparently due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in the Chinese provinces of Liaoning and Jilin, which share a border with North Korea. On the other hand, NK Pro’s analysis of satellite imagery shows that the DPRK is completing work on a quarantine and disinfection center near the Tumangan railway station and preparing to resume cargo traffic with Russia.
On April 24, the US newspaper Washington Post, citing a report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, reported that only two countries in the world – North Korea and Eritrea – have not vaccinated their populations against COVID-19. In Quintana’s assessment, COVID-19-related restrictions, including border closures, appear to have prevented an outbreak of the virus domestically, although at “a significant cost to public health and further exacerbating problems in the economy.”
All in all, nothing foretold troubles. On May 6, however, the ROK media reported that North Korea had ordered its citizens to stay in their homes on Wednesday for unspecified reasons, revoking the order the next day. Some have suggested that the order may have been triggered by cases of fever in the country.
On May 9, North Korea again called for intensified efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 amid growing cases of the fever. At the same time, South Korean intelligence suggested that the temporary quarantine was linked to COVID-19.
On May 10, Pyongyang residents were again suddenly ordered to stay indoors, with NK News sources describing the reason as an unspecified “national problem.” Evening meetings were cancelled and queues formed at bus stops. However, a foreign diplomat working in Pyongyang told NK News that short-term instructions to stay inside were not unusual. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, the resource itself repeatedly reported cases of citizens in the capital being told to stay at home for fear of COVID-19 arriving in the country during dust storms from abroad.
On May 11, NK News noted, the quarantine in Pyongyang continued, but state media continued to operate as usual. Observation through the DMZ of the northern border areas did not reveal anything special either.
Things came to a head on May 12, when the KCNA officially confirmed the first case of COVID-19 infection. As it turned out, tests collected on May 8 from “fever patients at an organization in the capital” detected “stealth omicron.” On the same day, the Politburo, chaired by Kim Jong-un, held a meeting, the main topic of which was the formulation of a quarantine response. Criticizing the relevant agencies for “carelessness, promiscuity, irresponsibility and incapacity,” Kim Jong-un ordered a nationwide lockdown, “measures to mobilize emergency medical supplies” and a return to the highest level of quarantine measures that were imposed at the start of the pandemic.
The virus infiltration was described as “the most serious national-level emergency,” and the DPRK leader speaking at the meeting appeared for the first time wearing a mask. On the same day it was revealed that “since late April, an unknown fever has spread sharply across the country, with over 350,000 patients with high fever registered in a short period, among whom more than 162,200 have been treated.” However, the KCNA materials do not refer to those diagnosed with coronavirus, but to “febrile” patients, which can include both those with COVID and those who simply have a high fever, as since 2020 there have been enough symptoms of acute respiratory viral infection to qualify for special registration and quarantine.
A special mention should be made of the following fact. While the “self-isolation regime” worked, anti-Pyongyang propaganda like the Daily NK kept telling audiences that this was not the case: fake news was spread about villages completely extinct, about soldiers in quarantine units not receiving assistance, about Kim Jong-un leaving Pyongyang and going to a secluded place. But when the pandemic breakthrough did happen, neither the Daily NK, nor other propaganda “mouthpieces” of a similar nature, wrote anything about it.
At a meeting of the politburo on May 13, Kim Jong-un said the outbreak of “fever of unknown origin” was the biggest shock to the DPRK since its founding, and called for lessons to be learned from the advanced quarantine system to contain the spread of COVID-19 in other countries, including China. But the disease was spreading like wildfire. As a result, Kim issued an emergency decree for the immediate and timely supply of medicines from state reserves and ordered the mobilization and deployment of army medical units).
On the same day it was reported that North Korea had asked China for quarantine materials and equipment, and consultations were underway.
The latest data on the spread of the epidemic, which the author possessed before sending the text to the editor, was for May 17, 2022: out of a population of around 25 million, 1,715,950 people have fallen ill, 1,024,720 have recovered and 691,170 are receiving treatment. The number of deaths is 62.
How did the coronavirus get into the DPRK? Some marginal and far-right Protestant organizations have already begun to speculate that they are involved, but they do so very cautiously because such statements could be perceived as an admission of terrorism using biological weapons. This version cannot be completely dismissed, but the most likely scenario is still that the source is the Chinese border city of Dandong, where the outbreak took place. Judging by the fact that even the official materials of the KCNA speak of “sick people in a certain organization,” it could be the case that, amid the partial restoration of trade links, some official has returned with the “stealth omicron” strain, which is difficult to detect and highly infectious.
How well can the country cope with the outbreak without causing a collapse of the health system? Fortunately, despite high infection rates and a very substantial number of cases, omicron has a lower mortality rate. Therefore, if North Korea were to adopt the strategy that South Korea came up with in the wake of omicron (not hospitalizing all the sick, but only those who need serious care), the burden on the medical system would be eased.
It is clear that with COVID entering the country, the medical policy of the North will change. In the past they did not take vaccines from WHO, South Korea, Russia and China, relying on quarantine and explaining that vaccination does not give a 100% guarantee, especially against new strains, and one has to rely on quarantine. But now additional measures may be needed, and rumor has it that Chinese, and possibly Russian, assistance is on the way.
How long can the country survive a near-total lockdown regime without harming its social and economic life? This is the most difficult question, which hinges on a particular expert’s perceptions of the size of the “regime’s emergency fund.” The author feels that a few weeks will go relatively normally, but the question is how well the cities will manage to secure food and medical supplies under lockdown conditions. The army is mobilized and hopefully it can cope.
How will it impact the development of the nuclear missile program? Oddly enough, there are two opposing development scenarios. The first suggestion is that the North will emphasize that the pandemic is not a reason to increase pressure and use the epidemiological situation as leverage for “vaccine in exchange for denuclearization.” And thus, they “will bare their teeth” – after all, the last launch was on May 12. The second assumption is that the North will have no time for new launches or nuclear tests: this will not arouse the sympathy of Moscow and Beijing, whose help is important.
And what about inter-Korean relations? Since “COVID knows no nationality” and is perceived as a global problem, this could be a good chance to “extend the North a helping hand” without putting additional conditions on the help. South Korea is well aware of this issue: despite the declared tougher line against the North and its launches, Yoon Seok-yeol and his administration immediately responded with a willingness to help. However, there is still no response to Seoul, and for a more detailed overview of the international response to the penetration of the coronavirus in North Korea, read the author’s next articles, as each article is limited in size.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, 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”.