This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Koreans who fail to wear masks face at least three months of “disciplinary labor” with harsher penalties for people caught sneaking into China under tough new COVID-19 prevention measures, officials in the country told RFA Thursday.
The punishments, to be enforced by students conscripted into facemask patrols, were rolled out this week in a renewed drive against the spread of the coronavirus that belies Pyongyang’s official claim that the country has stayed virus free.
“Beginning on the 16th, an inspection team is being organized here in Pyongyang and also in provincial cities with police officers, and college and high school students to conduct intensive crackdowns on people who don’t wear masks,” said an official familiar with policies launched after a top-level meeting this month.
“Whoever doesn’t wear a mask will be punished with more than three months of disciplinary labor, regardless of who they are,” the source, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely, told RFA’s Korean Service.
After reports of infections in Chinese provinces near North Korea last month, the government swung into action, sending students back on vacation on July 1, only a month after schools had reopened.
On July 2, at expanded meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party, with Kim Jong Un presiding, several senior health officials were fired for failing to contain the virus, RFA reported recently.
‘Chronic idleness’ in quarantine efforts
It was at that meeting that Kim instructed the committee to make emergency preparations because the spread of the virus was getting worse, said the Pyongyang source, who attended the July 2 meeting.
“From the 12th to the 14th, intensive study sessions were conducted for workers and officials of factories, farms, and law enforcement agencies across the country including in Pyongyang, to strengthen our quarantine efforts,” the official said.
“This is because during the 14th meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party held on the 2nd, the Highest Dignity directly addressed the chronic idleness prevalent among workers on the national emergency quarantine project, and blatant violations of quarantine regulations,” the official said, using an honorific term to refer to Kim Jong Un.
“The study sessions were conducted to establish practical measures for improving our emergency quarantine measures against the matters that the Highest Dignity pointed out,” the source said.
The source said that at one of the study sessions, authorities reminded attendees that several senior ruling party officials from Pyongyang were dismissed for not doing enough to support quarantine measures.
“[Authorities] strongly urged workers in charge of factories in Pyongyang to take the lead in the prevention of the coronavirus, so the workers in attendance are on high alert,” the source said.
Pyongyang officially asserts that there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases within its borders, but it has taken extensive measures since late winter to stop the spread of the pandemic, including the lockdown of entire counties and cities and the closure of its economic lifeline – the border with China.
Additionally the government warned the public in health lectures earlier this year that COVID-19 was spreading in three specific areas of the country, including the capital Pyongyang, RFA reported previously.
Punishing border crossers
Similar study sessions on “coronavirus prevention among factory and farm workers” were held in several areas of North Hamgyong province, including in the cities of Chongjin and Hoeryong, an official from the province told RFA.
“On the morning of the 15th in Hoeryong, local workers gathered residents in each neighborhood organization and delivered the ideas discussed at the study sessions,” the second source said.
“They told residents to be aware of how gravely serious coronavirus infection is and how it impacts society, and told them to make wearing masks part of their daily lives,” the second source said.
The source also said the workers explained measures specific to Hoeryong, a city located just across from China on the countries’ Tumen River border.
“Residents of the border area were threatened that they would face more than a year of hard labor if they are caught secretly visiting China or having contact with Chinese without permission,” said the second source.
Though the Sino-Korean border has been officially closed since January, the border is quite porous and smugglers and traders, as well as people hoping to escape North Korea, can sneak across the Tumen and Yalu rivers with relative ease in some places.
RFA reported in March that a mask enforcement team had been organized in Kimjongsuk county, Ryanggang province, and was cracking down on maskless residents in marketplaces and streets there.
At that time, a resident said that the punishment for being caught without a mask was a three-day stint at a military labor center.
As of Thursday evening, the World Health Organization has not responded to emails from RFA regarding the COVID-19 situation there, including questions about their figure of zero confirmed cases.