SEOUL – Before May 12, many experts questioned North Korea’s claims of not having a single case of COVID-19.
But the country changed history that day, admitting its first outbreak without specifying the number of cases. The following day it was reported that 350,000 people had developed fever symptoms, with 18,000 cases on May 12 alone.
Two weeks later, the North has reported a total of 3.27 million “fever patients” and 69 deaths. It is also claimed that 90% of patients have fully recovered. And on Thursday, the North reported no deaths for the third straight day.
Experts question Pyongyang’s claim that the numbers — and the government’s claim that the outbreak is now under control.
In fact, North Korea’s limited testing capabilities mean it can’t confirm whether the “fever patients,” as they call them, have COVID-19. Able to only perform a few hundred tests a day on a population of more than 25 million, “they’re basically flying blind,” says Kee Park, a Harvard lecturer and neurosurgeon who has worked in North Korea.
Still, an editorial in office Rodong Sinmun The newspaper boasted over the weekend that North Korea had set a record for the longest distance traveled without a single case of COVID-19 amid a global pandemic.
“We stably suppressed and controlled the spread of the virus in a short period of time in the sudden situation,” the editorial claimed, “proving a thousand times over that our party’s epidemic policy is correct.”
That policy included sealing off borders from the start of the pandemic until some border trade with China resumed this spring, and issuing orders to shoot border guards (a South Korean fisheries officer who appeared to be trying to enter North Korea by sea was shot and his body burned at sea). After the outbreak announced in May, there was a nationwide lockdown and the military mobilized to distribute medicines.
However, experts argue that Pyongyang is likely underestimating the magnitude of the outbreak. It’s far from over, they say, warning that its effects will likely be felt for at least months – and that things are likely to get worse if Pyongyang continues to reject offers of vaccines from foreign donors.
Do lockdowns work without vaccines?
But without a supply of vaccines, will the lockdown imposed on May 12 really be effective?
It could slow the spread of the virus but not stop it, says Shin Young-jeon, a professor of preventive medicine at Seoul’s Hanyang University, who has visited North Korea and advised aid groups on medical exchanges with the North.
COVID-19 cases won’t peak until 70-80% of the population has gotten it, he says.
Shin adds that assuming a minimum 0.6% death rate for the Omicron strain of the virus — which is the fatality rate South Koreans who are not fully vaccinated have experienced — the North expects over 100,000 deaths from the outbreak can.
Others are more optimistic about the impact of a lockdown.
Jeong Eun Mee, an expert on North Korean society at the Korean Institute of National Unification (KINU), a state think tank in Seoul, notes that North Koreans have long adapted to the government’s strict social controls.
“By closing and isolating living or working units very quickly, I think they could contain the spread relatively quickly in the early phase of the lockdown,” says Jeong.
But as in some cities in neighboring China, like Shanghai, the lockdown has caused significant difficulties for residents.
Residents endure the lockdown
Jeong hears reports of the plight of defectors, whose relatives in North Korea say “they can’t go to a market and buy things when they need them.”
Food distribution outside of Pyongyang is generally inadequate and the pandemic has exacerbated the situation and pushed up prices.
“Necessities are scarce,” Jeong adds, “and even when they find a way to procure basic necessities, prices have risen more than five times their typical price,” especially outside of Pyongyang as the regime seeks to harass the elites to keep healthy. provided in the capital.
In addition, the lockdown could have an impact on the food supply in the coming months. Jeong notes that every May, North Korean authorities mobilize urbanites to go to the countryside to plant rice.
This will be difficult under the current lockdown, and a shortage in agricultural production could persist into next year, worsening malnutrition, which already affects about 40% of North Korea’s population.
All of these hardships could unleash a wave of grumbling among the North Korean people. But Jeong notes that North Korea’s leaders are adept at shifting the blame onto their own subordinates.
“Punching officials for not acting responsibly or for engaging in corruption is a typical leadership tactic used by North Korea in times of crisis,” Jeong notes.
Kim Jong Un has already been reported by state media as chewing health officials for botching the government’s response to the COVID cases. This month, for example, he slammed cabinet and health officials “for their irresponsible work ethic and lack of organization and execution” in fighting the outbreak.
Why North Korea Keeps Saying “No” to Vaccines
In recent days, state media have also expressed doubts about foreign-made vaccines.
A Rodong Sinmun Article opined this week that while foreign pharmaceutical companies try to make new injections to beat new COVID-19 variants, “it becomes doubtful that they will be useful on a global scale.”
Such reports could indicate that Pyongyang’s opposition to accepting donated foreign syringes is stiffening. North Korea may not want to be seen as depending on outside help – or may be trying to justify its decision not to accept donations by expressing doubts about the effectiveness of the vaccines.
Before the outbreak, North Korea rejected millions of vaccines offered by COVAX, and since the outbreak, South Korea and China have offered vaccines and help but received no response.
But there is a chance North Korea is willing to covertly accept help from China. South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reports that two trains, each with 30 cars, passed the border from China to North Korea on Thursday evening, filled with medical supplies. Reuters is now reporting that North Korea imported millions of face masks, 1,000 ventilators and possibly vaccines ahead of the current outbreak, according to Chinese customs data.
Hanyang University’s Shin Young-jeon argues that both North Korea and donors need to put their concerns aside. Donors are often concerned about donations being diverted to the military, while North Korea has resisted efforts to oversee the distribution of donations within their country.
“I think North Korea has the primary responsibility for accepting vaccine offers,” he says, “but now is the time for the donor side to put no strings attached.”
Another part of the problem can be poor cultural communication. Shin says donors shouldn’t wait or wait for calls for help, which North Koreans are too proud for.
On the other hand, there is a possibility that North Korea is willing to covertly accept help from China. South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reports that two trains, each with 30 cars, passed the border from China to North Korea on Thursday evening, filled with medical supplies. Reuters is now reporting that North Korea imported millions of face masks, 1,000 ventilators and possibly vaccines ahead of the current outbreak, according to Chinese customs data.
“They never told me, ‘We need this and that, so please help,'” says Shin. “We need to understand the different language they use.”
Shin provides an example of this language from a North Korean contact.
“A long-time acquaintance once told me, ‘Nothing is scarce. But we need everything.’ ”
NPR’s Se Eun Gong contributed to this report in Seoul.
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