Kim Jong-un played quickly. On January 22, 2020, North Korea closed its borders with China and Russia to prevent a mysterious new virus from spreading in the country. Back then what we now call Covid-19, had killed only nine people and infected 400 others. More than a year later, the border of the hermit kingdom remains hermetically sealed.
North Korea’s response to the pandemic has been one of the most extreme and paranoid in the world, experts say. The lockdowns and quarantines it imposed have been strict, while border restrictions have put an end to fishing and smuggling of goods into the country. At the same time, the national media and the propaganda apparatus carried messages warning its citizens of the dangers of Covid-19 and praising the country’s “flawless” approach to the pandemic.
But the true impact of Covid-19 on North Korea – and its citizens – remains a mystery. Faced with a global health crisis, the country has turned in on itself more than ever. “North Korea, in general, is more difficult to know this year or last year than at any time in the past two decades,” says Sokeel Park, director of research at Liberty Korea. Nord, a group that works with defectors from around the country to understand what’s going on within its borders. “It seems clear to me that, nevertheless, the North Korean government has overreacted overwhelmingly.”
Officially, North Korea has not recorded any cases of Covid-19. Weekly reports from the World Health Organization’s office in Southeast Asia show that North Korean PCR samples are being processed in 15 laboratories, but all have come back negative. As of January 8, the most recent date for which figures are available, 26,244 samples from 13,259 people have returned negative. About 700 North Koreans, out of a population of 25 million, are tested every week.
“I don’t know a lot of people in the North Korean observer, analyst and journalist community who think there are no cases,” Park says. All North Korean experts interviewed for this article agree. Some having accused North Korea’s lies, while others suggest its approach is to keep control and public perception.
Officials closest have admitted there could be a case in July when the state newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported that a “state of emergency” had been declared in the city of Kaesong, in the south of the country. The newspaper reported that a defector who had returned to the country from South Korea was “suspected” of having Covid-19. But the case has never been confirmed. Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister, responded to South Korea’s suggestions that the country may have had cases, describing a speech like “imprudent”.
From the outside, it is impossible to prove the scale of the Covid-19 crisis in North Korea. All official messages are controlled by the Kim Jong-un regime, and international diplomats and aid groups have largely left the country. The last remaining members of the International Committee of the Red Cross left the country on December 2. The result is that little reliable information manages to get out of North Korea – those with contacts inside the country and working with defectors say it has been impossible. work on the reality of the health situation on the ground.
Although it has not reported any cases of Covid-19, North Korea has quarantined potential suspected cases. As of December 3, 33,223 people had been released from quarantine, according to figures released to the WHO – although no figures have been reported since. Quarantine rules in North Korea are also strict, according to reports. When an epidemic broke out in China, North Korea tracked down all Chinese visitors to the city of Rason and quarantined them on an island for a month.