North Korea Declares A COVID-19 Emergency

North Korea has announced the appearance of the first ‘suspected’ case of COVID-19 in the country. Following a meeting with the politburo North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared a ‘maximum emergency’ and locked down the city of Kaesong which is located in close proximity to the DMZ. According to the official government version of events, released through the KCNA news agency: “An emergency event happened in Kaesong city where a runaway who went to the south three years ago – a person who is suspected to have been infected with the vicious virus – returned on 19 July after illegally crossing the demarcation line.” In addition, the government has also launched an investigation to determine how a man managed to cross the heavily fortified DMZ.

Initially, North Korea was swift in reacting to COVID-19. In the earliest days of the pandemic Kim Jong Un ordered his nation’s borders closed, and thousands of people were placed in isolation. For months North Korea has boasted of complete success in dealing with the virus. Because the nation-state is extremely isolated, it has become impossible to confirm or dispute the reports coming out of the North concerning its fight against COVID. For months, however, medical professionals have doubted the claim that there were no active COVID cases in North Korea.

Now, all of the sudden a case has materialized from suspicious circumstances. According to the government’s story the virus has been brought into the country from the outside by a former defector. That detail seems to suggest that North Korea is preparing to lay blame for the virus coming into the country on a foreign power, most likely South Korea or the United States. Even though its unclear just what the situation is in the North, judging from the limited amount of information available, its likely that the government’s efforts to contain COVID-19 are failing. In the coming days and weeks a large portion of the population could develop the virus, pushing North Korea’s healthcare system to the brink of collapse. There is no conceivable way for the North Korean government to hide a large-scale disaster like this from the world. Therefore, Pyongyang needs a scapegoat to lay blame upon when the time comes.

North Korea Update: 3 May, 2020

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This has been a busy weekend on the Korean Peninsula. On Friday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his first public appearance in nearly a month, ending rumors and wide speculation that suggested the Supreme Leader had died as the result of a cardiovascular procedure early in April. Kim’s appearance at the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory north of Pyongyang has answered many questions, however, it is bound to create a new wave of them as well. Most of these will be about whether or not Kim recently had surgery, and what his present health condition is. The truth of the matter is that very few facts have escaped from North Korea aside from Kim being alive. On the subject of health, how North Korea is holding up in the midst of a global pandemic is unknown. Although the images, and video released on Friday show a relatively normal scene at Sunchon, there is growing concern that North Korea could very well be dealing with thousands of COVID-19 cases behind the propaganda wall put up by state media.

As if these issues weren’t enough to deal with, on Sunday North and South Korean troops exchanged small arms fire along the DMZ. There were no casualties or damage reported on either side. This was the first incident where the two sides exchanged fire since 2017. At the moment Sunday’s brief exchange appears to have been the result of an accident. Its timing though, provides plenty of food for the imagination. Some observers have openly wondered if there is indeed a tie-in between the shooting on the DMZ, and Kim Jong Un resurfacing.

Probably not. Kim Jong Un would probably prefer a more spectacular act of symbolism to show the world he remains in control of North Korea’s military. A ballistic missile test, or barrage of short-range rockets being fired into the waters off of the coast would fit the bill. If either one of those take place in the coming week, it will most likely be a direct message from Kim showing he has retained the control and loyalty of his armed forces.