SEOUL–North Korea’s not saying a word about deaths or illnesses from the coronavirus, but the disease reportedly has spread across the border from China and is taking a toll in a country with a dismal health care system and scant resources for fighting off the deadly bug.
One sure sign of the regime’s fears is that it failed to stage a parade in central Pyongyang on Saturday, the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the country’s armed forces. Last year, Kim Jong Un himself presided over the procession that displayed the North’s latest missiles and other fearsome hardware along with goose-stepping soldiers in serried ranks.
This year, nothing about the nation’s nuclear warheads, much less the “new strategic weapon” that Kim has vowed to unveil. Rodong Sinmum, the newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party, merely cited the armed forces’ supposed success combating “severe and dangerous difficulties”—and said nothing at all about the parade.
But reports have filtered out about Kim’s subjects falling prey to coronavirus despite the country’s decision to seal its 880-mile border with China, most of it along the Yalu River into the Yellow Sea to the west, and its 11-mile border with Russia where the Tumen River flows into the Pacific.
Among the first to report fatalities in North Korea, the Seoul-based website Daily NK said five people had died in the critical northwestern city of Sinuiju, on the Yalu River across road and rail bridges from Dandong, which is the largest Chinese city in the region and a key point for commerce with North Korea despite sanctions.
Daily NK, which relies on sources inside North Korea that send reports via Chinese mobile phone networks to contacts in China, said authorities had “ordered public health officials in Sinuiju to quickly dispose of the bodies and keep the deaths secret from the public.”
The victims had crossed the porous Yalu River border despite orders to cut off traffic from China as the disease radiated from the industrial city of Wuhan where the virus originated in December. As of Sunday, more than 700 people had died inside China.
One of the first patients in North Korea reportedly was hospitalized in Sinuiju “with symptoms similar to a cold and was given fever reducers and antibiotics,” said Daily NK, but the patient died as the fever rose. Two more patients died two days later in another hospital in Sinuiju and another two in a nearby town.
North Korea’s worries about an epidemic are all the more intense because of its shortage of basic medicine and equipment. As cases mount, authorities are working feverishly to contain a disease that, if unchecked, could undermine Kim’s grip over his 25 million people, most of whom live in poverty worsened by hunger.
“Because health conditions and health care in North Korea are so bad,” said Bruce Bennett, long-time analyst at the Rand Corporation, “they cannot allow the replication process to develop without severe intervention”—that is, they have to take drastic steps to keep the virus from spreading fast.
The country has just streamlined a headquarters to coordinate operations, Rodong Sinmun reported, marshaling 30,000 workers to combat the epidemic.
Besides blocking international traffic, the North’s Korean Central News Agency reported the headquarters had ordered tests for everyone entering the capital city of Pyongyang by road and for anyone who had traveled outside the country. Foreigners working in Pyongyang, including those with diplomatic missions or non-governmental organizations, were banned temporarily from venturing outside for shopping.
Even so, with hospitals and clinics largely bereft of needed supplies other than those serving the elite in the capital and elsewhere, a certain desperation was evident in the state media. Rodong Sinmun warned that “the fate” of the country was at stake, according to Yonhap, the South Korean news agency.
“North Korea lacks a vaccine or medical abilities,” said Bennett,”so they have to act by preventing the disease from coming into North Korea.” The point is to “rapidly contain any leakage—exactly what they are trying to do by preventing people-to-people contacts.”
That’s virtually impossible, however, as long as people move illicitly across the border, carrying on low-level commerce in the need to survive a decrepit system. JoongAng Ilbo, a leading South Korean newspaper, cited anonymous source saying that a woman had been diagnosed in the capital and that all those with whom she had had contact had been quarantined.
Unlike in China, North Korea officially has denied any cases while attempting to get people to cooperate in stopping the spread of the disease. JoongAng Ilbo quoted a North Korean health official, Song In Bom, as having called on North Korean TV for “civil awareness” and unity in dealing with the disease while assuring his audience there had so far been no cases.
“I believe absolutely nothing of what I'm hearing from Pyongyang,” said Evans Revere, a former senior U.S. diplomat who specializes in North Korean issues.
“It simply defies credibility that a country with a grossly inadequate public health infrastructure and a malnourished population, a country that depends on China for some 90 percent of its trade, and a country that had until recently opened itself up to a major influx of Chinese tourists in order to earn foreign exchange has avoided having a lot of victims,” said Revere. “The total closure of the border and other measures Pyongyang has taken reflect a real sense of emergency in the North about the threat.”
In fact, he went on, “I can't help but think it may also reflect panic if the number of patients is growing.”
Indeed, “the coronavirus arguably poses a unique threat to North Korea,” wrote Victor Cha and Marie DuMond of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington in an article in Beyond Parallel, which is published by CSIS.
“The regime’s relative isolation from the international community hinders the widespread penetration of many diseases from abroad,” they wrote, but “the porous nature of the border with China and frequent travel is a clear vector for the virus’ transmission.” Thus, “If there are reports of the virus inside of North Korea, we should expect that the virus would spread rapidly given the state’s inability to contain a pandemic.”
By now, it may be too late for North Korea to stamp out all signs of the disease.
“Several suspected coronavirus infections have occurred in North Korea even though it shut all its borders,” said Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s biggest-selling newspaper, citing anonymous sources. “The infections most likely spread through porous parts of the border with China that see plenty of smuggling and other clandestine traffic,” said the paper, reporting suspected cases among those “engaged in smuggling between the North and China.”
“Bottom line,” said Steve Tharp, who’s been analyzing North Korean affairs as both an army officer and civilian expert for many years here, “the coronavirus has tightened up sanctions enforcement more than any other measure over the years because the North Koreans are actually self-enforcing the sanctions, against their will, through the tight closing of their borders in order to save the regime from being wiped out by this human pandemic coming.”
North Korean leaders, said Tharp, “understand very well that this pandemic would rip through their population and be much more dangerous in North Korea than other places because of their inadequate medical infrastructure and the low resistance disease of the general population after so many years of surviving under near-starvation conditions.”