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US-based experts doubt North Korea’s claim of being coronavirus free

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 03, 2020

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

North Korea publicly declared Wednesday that the country was totally free of the coronavirus, a claim that drew skepticism from U.S.-based experts who suggested that Pyongyang had moved to warn off foreign foes and appear strong to its population.

A senior health official in Pyongyang asserted in a rare interview with AFP and other international news outlets that the country’s efforts to protect its citizens from contracting the virus have been successful.

“Not one single person has been infected with the novel coronavirus in our country so far,” said Pak Myong Su, director of the anti-epidemic department of North Korea’s Central Emergency Anti-epidemic Headquarters.

“We have carried out preemptive and scientific measures such as inspections and quarantine for all personnel entering our country and thoroughly disinfecting all goods, as well as closing borders and blocking sea and air lanes,” said Pak.

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Since the epidemic flared up in China in January, RFA’s Korean Service has reported on Pyongyang’s extensive measures to prevent the spread of the virus within its borders, including the quarantine of entire counties near the Chinese border, the cancellation of important cultural events, and the establishment of a quarantine center in a large Pyongyang hotel.

RFA reports additionally revealed that the government also isolated foreign residents and those who recently had been abroad to China, issued mandates that citizens don facemasks while in public, cancelled public meetings in favor of video conferences, closed off its borders with China while suspending legitimate and illegitimate trade, and hastily cremated patients who mysteriously died in what authorities claimed was the flu.

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.

Others say that the preventative measures seem to be reactionary, and focused on keeping Kim Jong Un and his inner circle safe from COVID-19.

Experts say claim is dubious

Several U.S.-based experts Thursday told RFA’s Korean Service they doubted that North Korea could actually be virus-free, instead offering the notion that the claim has a strategic purpose.

“I speculate that they are likely worried that, if outsiders believe there are many cases in North Korea, it would affect their military readiness and their ‘enemies’ might try to take advantage,” Susan Thornton, former acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told RFA.

“They likely want to dispel publicly to foreigners any notion that they are distracted or weakened by COVID cases.”

“I don’t think their efforts to dispel suspicion will be credible to outsiders, but they are not likely focused on that,” she added.

Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation told RFA that North Korea wants to project an image of strength in the face of the spreading virus.

“[Pyongyang announced] seven missile launches and several large military exercises in March. The regime’s message may be directed at both domestic and international audiences to allay internal concerns while warning foreign opponents not to take advantage of the situation,” Klingner said.

“North Korea was also defiant when responding to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s call for continued sanctions and rebuffing President Trump’s offer of COVID assistance,” he added.

Pompeo on March 22 asked the international community to stand together on its denuclearization efforts by continuing sanctions aimed at depriving the North of resources that could be directed toward its nuclear and missile programs, and President Trump reportedly earlier offered U.S. cooperation against  COVID-19 in a personal letter to Kim Jong Un.

Jung Pak of the Brookings Institute also found North Korea’s claim improbable.

“It is highly unlikely that North Korea has zero cases as the regime keeps claiming, given that it’s between two countries that have a high number of cases [82,000 in China and 9800 in South Korea] and the porous border with China,” she told RFA.

“Since the crisis bloomed, the regime has been trying to show how it has the situation under control and I see the recent press conference as a way to reinforce that message via a representative of the public health bureaucracy,” Pak added.