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North Korea authorities admit COVID-19 is spreading, contradicting official claims

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus. This virus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China. (CDC/TNS)
April 20, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Authorities in North Korea have been telling citizens in public lectures that there were confirmed coronavirus cases within the reclusive country’s borders as early as late March, contradicting Pyongyang’s claims that it remains free of the epidemic that has spread to all of its neighbors, RFA has learned.

Two sources within North Korea say the government held lectures at every organization and neighborhood watch unit in late March to educate people about the pandemic, where speakers publicly stated that COVID-19 was spreading in three specific areas of the country.

“[They] held a lecture session for all the residents titled ‘Let’s all work together on the coronavirus quarantine project to [successfully] implement the Supreme Leader’s policies,’” a resident in Ryanggang province, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, told RFA’s Korean Service Thursday.

“The speaker at the lecture publicly stated that there were confirmed coronavirus patients among [the people],” the source added.

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“They said that the [Korean Workers’] Party’s quarantine guidelines had not been implemented properly by us, and that this caused serious damage to the people’s economy,” the source said.

“The speaker appealed to us all to prevent [further] damage [to society] so we can together win the war against the coronavirus,” said the source.

North Korea’s dilapidated, underfunded health-care system – where some hospitals lack reliable running water and electricity – leaves the population particularly vulnerable to a pandemic.

The announcement that there were North Koreans who had contracted the virus did not sit well with residents in attendance, according to the source.

“They were wondering how it could be possible when the authorities had been claiming that there were no victims in North Korea thanks to the party’s thorough emergency quarantine measures,” the source said.

The source said authorities had been touting these policies and contrasting North Korea’s situation with that of South Korea and the rest of the world, where large numbers were falling ill and dying.

“The speaker reiterated that North Korea has the most superior socialist healthcare system, making it the country with the fewest confirmed cases in the world,” said the source.

Suspicious residents

The authorities, he added, told the audience for the mandatory lectures that in North Korea, which is the size of the U.S. state of Missisippi, there were confirmed cases in only three areas – Pyongyang, South Hwanghae province, and North Hamgyong province. But residents found that to be suspicious.

“North Hamgyong and South Hwanghae are located at the top and bottom of the map of our country, and Pyongyang is in the middle. Can you believe that there are confirmed cases in only these three areas?” questioned the source.

“If the virus spread from the northern end of the country [near the border with China] to the southern end, it means it has to have spread across the entire country.”

Another source who requested anonymity told RFA from Pyongyang on Wednesday that the lectures were held in the capital as well and the same claims were made.

“The lecturer told us we should be proud that we live in the country with the fewest confirmed coronavirus cases because of our socialist medical system and healthcare policies,” said the second source.

“They even told us that we should pledge our undying loyalty to our leader for providing us with such a great healthcare system,” the second source said.

The attendees in Pyongyang, however, did the exact opposite.

“They say that the Supreme Leader [Kim Jong Un] did nothing for residents who are struggling to make ends meet. They are criticizing the authorities for blaming the people for failing to implement the party’s quarantine guidelines [instead of themselves]”

On April 1, Pyongyang publicly declared to foreign media that its preventative measures against the deadly virus were 100 percent successful and that not a single case existed in the country.

“Not one single person has been infected with the novel coronavirus in our country so far,” Pak Myong Su, director of the anti-epidemic department of North Korea’s Central Emergency Anti-epidemic Headquarters, told a news conference. He attributed this to measures such as the closure of borders and quarantine and inspection procedures.

Since the epidemic flared up in China in January, RFA’s Korean Service has reported on Pyongyang’s extensive preventative measures, including the quarantine of entire counties near the Chinese border, the cancellation of key political and cultural events, and the establishment of a quarantine center in a large Pyongyang hotel.

Porous border with China

The government also isolated foreign residents and those who recently had been to China, issued mandates that citizens don facemasks while in public, cancelled public meetings in favor of video conferences, and suspended trade with China.

But despite these measures and those reported by other outlets, Pyongyang never reported a single confirmed case of the virus.

Outside experts have publicly expressed their doubts, saying it is very likely that it crossed into North Korea from China in the early days of the epidemic, because the long border is quite porous. On top of that, North Korea’s healthcare system largely collapsed during a 1990s famine and remains rudimentary and resource-starved.

But according to data presented by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering, as of Friday, Pyongyang has still not reported any cases, a fact clearly contradicted by the statements made at the late March community lectures to the North Korean people.

RFA and other media outlets have reported many mysterious deaths in North Korea without confirming they were due to COVID 19.

In February, RFA reported that a hospital in Chongjin, North Hamgyong hurriedly cremated patients who had died of pneumonia-like symptoms and that the entire hospital had to be disinfected.

An official told RFA that the fact that the hospital cremated the bodies instead of allowing the deceased patients’ families to perform the rite was highly irregular and indicated that they likely died of a highly contagious disease.

Earlier this month, a local reporter for the Japan-based Asia Press reported that Chongjin had a growing number of suspected COVID-19 cases, with patients showing symptoms of cough and high-fever, some of whom perished.

As of Friday, the WHO did not reply to questions from RFA on the lecturers’ admission that COVID-19 has taken hold in Pyongyang, North Hamgyong and South Hwanghae.