What we know and don’t know about COVID-19 in North Korea


North Korea reported 21 deaths and 174,440 new “fever cases” on Friday, according to state media KCNA, but did not say how many deaths and cases are related to COVID-19, but it is likely due to the country’s extremely limited testing capabilities. high.

However, given the opaque nature of the regime and the country isolated from the world (a trend that has worsened since the pandemic), it is extremely difficult to assess the real situation in the field.

However, reports in North Korea’s state media have been vague and many important questions remain unanswered, including North Korea’s vaccine coverage and how the lockdown will affect the livelihoods of 25 million people.

Here’s what we know and don’t know about outbreaks.

How did the outbreak appear?

North Korean authorities did not reveal the cause of the outbreak.

North Korea has closed its borders thoroughly to contain the virus from January 2020, further isolating the so-called ‘hermit country’ from the world. They even refused invitations to send teams to the Tokyo and Beijing Olympics due to the threat of COVID-19.
And as new strains began to emerge, they intensified these efforts, blocking almost all trade with China. It is China’s largest trading partner and the economic lifeline of the Kim Jong-un regime. From September to October 2020, imports from Beijing fell by 99%. .

It’s unclear how the virus got through the country’s tightly sealed borders.

When the Korean Central News Agency reported on the 11th that it was the first confirmed case of Corona 19 in Korea, it did not even mention the number of North Korean defectors. On May 8, it was simply stated that samples collected from people experiencing a fever tested positive for the highly contagious strain of Omicron.

By Friday, KCNA had reported 18,000 new “fever cases”, including one who tested positive for the BA.2 substrain of Omicron, which had recorded six deaths on Thursday.

The newspaper reported that “a fever of unknown cause has exploded nationwide since the end of April.” “Up to 187,800 people are currently quarantined.”

On Saturday, KCNA said a total of 524,440 people reported “fever” symptoms between late April and 13 May. Of these, 280,810 are still in quarantine and the rest have recovered.

Can North Korea Cope With A Massive Outbreak?

An outbreak of COVID-19 could be a disaster for North Korea. It will be difficult to treat a large number of patients with infectious diseases due to the country’s dilapidated medical infrastructure and lack of testing equipment.

North Korea’s lack of transparency and willingness to share information are also issues.

North Korea has never officially acknowledged how many people died in the devastating famine of the 1990s, which experts suggest killed 2 million people. Those who left the country at the time shared horrific stories of death, survival and chaos.

“North Korea has a limited supply of basic medicines, so health authorities should focus on preventive medicine,” said Lee Jin, head of the Hyundai Motor Foundation Center. The Korean history of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center told CNN early in the epidemic.

Why hasn't North Korea reported a case of coronavirus when all its neighbors have it?

In recent years, doctors who have fled North Korea often talk about poor working conditions and lack of everything from medicines to basic medical supplies.

Choi Jeong-hoon, a former North Korean doctor who defected in 2011, said when he helped with the 2006-2007 measles outbreak, North Korea did not have the resources to operate a 24-hour quarantine and quarantine. facility.

After identifying the suspect, he recalled in the doctor’s manual that the patient should be taken to a hospital or quarantine facility for monitoring.

“The problem with North Korea is that the manuals are not followed,” Choi said in an interview with CNN in 2020. When there was not enough food for people in hospitals and quarantine stations, people escaped to find food.

How are you responding so far?

North Korea’s state-run media officially acknowledged the first reported case of COVID-19 and declared the situation a “severe national emergency.”

On Thursday, Kim ordered all cities to be closed and “those with a fever or other symptoms” to be quarantined. According to KCNA, he also directed the distribution of medical supplies known to be stockpiled by the government in case of a COVID-19 emergency.

Kim later presided over a powerful Politburo meeting that agreed to implement “maximum” emergency quarantine measures. The Chosun Central News Agency reported on the 11th that the measures included isolating work units and conducting pre-health checkups to find and isolate people with ‘fever and abnormal symptoms’.

The Korean Central News Agency said, “Practical measures are being taken to keep production at a high rate in key sectors of the people’s economy and to stabilize people’s lives as much as possible.”

North Korea announces first coronavirus death in 'explosion'

According to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the Politburo criticized the country’s quarantine measures as “negligence, negligence, irresponsibility, and incompetence”, saying “it failed to respond sensitively” to the increasing number of cases of Corona 19 worldwide, including in neighboring regions.

A reporter from China’s state-run CGTN released a rare video filmed in Pyongyang on Friday, sharing his field experience.

“As far as we know, there are not many vaccinated people in Pyongyang and there is a lack of medical and infectious disease prevention facilities,” reporter Jiang Qing told Weibo.

“Since the capital is locked down, food at home is enough for a week. I’m still waiting to see what the government will do next.”

Chairman Kim checked the country’s emergency epidemic measures and medical supplies at a meeting on Saturday. He also urged North Korean officials to learn from China’s “advanced and rich quarantine results and the experience it has already achieved in the fight against malicious epidemics”.

What about vaccine coverage?

North Korea is known to have not imported a coronavirus vaccine despite being eligible for Covax, a global COVID-19 vaccine sharing program.

Assuming that most North Koreans are unvaccinated, North Korea’s outbreak can quickly become fatal, with limited testing capabilities, inadequate medical infrastructure, and isolation from the outside world.

There is a growing demand for national leadership to provide access to vaccines.

“There is no evidence that North Korea has access to enough vaccines to protect its population from COVID-19,” Amnesty International said. “But it has rejected millions of doses of AstraZeneca and Sinobac vaccines provided by the WHO-led COVAX program.” said. Statement by Boram Jang, Researcher of East Asia.

He added, “In the situation where the outbreak of Corona 19 is officially known in Korea, continuing down this road could cost many lives and would be an unconscionable act to defend the right to health.”

According to Reuters, Kovax reportedly cut the number of doses allocated to North Korea in February because North Korea failed to prepare for shipment.

A spokesperson for Vaccine Alliance, Gavi, said Kovax had shifted to “needs-based vaccine allocation” and had “no commitments” to North Korea now.

“If a country decides to start a COVID-19 vaccination program, it can deliver the vaccine in accordance with the criteria and technical considerations of the Kovax target, allowing the country to keep up with the international immunization target,” the spokesperson said.

CNN’s Joshua Berlinger and Seo Yun-jeong contributed to this report.

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