Pandemic Politics: North Korea

Speculation and concern continue to grow among medical experts about the true extent of new coronavirus cases in North Korea. The Pyongyang government has not reported any cases of COVID-19, the official name of the new coronavirus. Officially, the country is clean and the border with China is closed. Earlier in the week however, reports surfaced from sources inside of the secretive nation-state indicating the virus is present and has caused a number of deaths already. These reports are unconfirmed and there is no reliable method available to verify them. Yet given the present state of the North Korean healthcare system it is quite possible COVID-19 is present in the North and perhaps even running rampant. The reports, as well as other pieces of evidence, have led many healthcare experts to conclude North Korea is attempting to hide an outbreak.

In light of the situation in China, as well as other Southeast Asian nations, the Red Cross has requested an immediate exemption from sanctions against North Korea in order to help prepare that country in the event of an outbreak. The United States has said it supports such a measure and stands ready to assist international organizations presently working in North Korea.

When the situation in Wuhan started going from bad to worse, North Korea restricted travel, closed its ports to foreign ships, and summoned back government officials who had been working in the People’s Republic of China and holding them near the border for a period of 14 days to monitor for symptoms. One of those officials was reportedly executed after he broke quarantine last week. The North Korean military, according to reports, is involved in smuggling a large amount of South Korean surgical masks into the country through China. Closer to the capital of Pyongyang, stringent restrictive measures have been enacted, apparently to keep the virus from reaching the city. Inspections are taking place on all routes leading to Pyongyang, and all people passing through Pyongyang’s airport and main rail station are required to wear masks.

These are either actions taken by a nation fearing a possible outbreak, or the actions of a nation in the early stages of an outbreak. Time will tell, but by then it could very well be too late to contain COVOD-19 from severely affecting the North Korean populace.