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‘Virus free’ North Korea fires health officials for quarantine failures

North Korea chairman Kim Jong Un. (Kremlin/Released)
July 11, 2020

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

North Korea has fired senior health officials responsible for the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic after a meeting called by leader Kim Jong Un last week assessed their failures, even as the country officially claims to be virus free, sources in the country told RFA.

Experts who doubt Pyongyang’s assertion that there are no confirmed COVID-19 cases within its borders point to extensive measures Pyongyang has taken since late winter to stop the spread of the deadly virus, 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 through health lectures earlier this year that COVID-19 was spreading in three specific areas of the country, including the capital Pyongyang, according to a previous RFA report.

In April, Pak Myong Su, the director of the anti-epidemic department of North Korea’s Central Emergency Anti-epidemic Headquarters gave a rare interview with foreign media, where he said that “not a single person was infected” with the virus, and touted the country’s “preemptive measures.”

The July 2 meeting held by Kim and the subsequent firings undercut Park’s earlier claim.

“The Highest Dignity convened a large meeting of the Political Bureau to review the efforts of the National Emergency Quarantine Command, responsible for preventing the spread of the coronavirus and to question the problems that have emerged so far,” a source in North Pyongan province told RFA’s Korean Service on Tuesday, using an honorific term to refer to Kim Jong Un.

“Since then, some senior officials of the National Emergency Quarantine Command, who were in charge of the entire national quarantine project, have been removed from their posts,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

The source said that the meeting paid particular attention to the virus’ spread in the parts of North Pyongan close to the Chinese border.

“Senior officials of the quarantine command in charge of the border areas, including Sinuiju and Ryongchon, were dismissed, and new officials were appointed,” the source said.

Sinuiju sits just across the Yalu river from Dandong, China, and Ryongchon is a county on the border.

The meeting made it clear that Pyongyang, home to 2.8 million of North Korea’s 25.7 million people, was the priority.

“[They said] Coronavirus is showing signs of re-spreading in China’s Liaoning province [which borders North Korea] and other areas, and it is threatening the capital Pyongyang,” the source said.

“Several officials in charge of Pyongyang’s quarantine efforts have also been dismissed, so it is expected that recently eased restrictions on the movement of residents and the operation of vehicles will be reinstated,” said the source.

Another source, a resident of South Pyongan province, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA that the quarantine command had completely failed there.

“Since January the [command] had been actively dealing with the virus here in South Pyongan, but in the inland areas of the province there are still many people who end up dying after showing symptoms of COVID-19,” the second source said.

“It doesn’t matter if the Central Committee holds meetings to criticize and dismiss officials. The quarantine issue will still not be resolved,” the second source said.

The South Pyongan resident said that the quarantine command’s measures, such as trying to control the movement of people, were largely ineffective, and that the authorities should have been concerned about the livelihoods of South Pyongan’s residents.

“We are suffering from a double whammy of extreme economic difficulties caused by the coronavirus crisis and the fear of catching the disease itself,” the second source said.

“The coronavirus epidemic continues to disrupt the people’s livelihoods, but [authorities] have only made scapegoats out of a few officials of the quarantine command to address its failures,” said the second source.

A new wave of coronavirus would wreak havoc on the country’s poorest, as its ill-equipped and outdated medical system makes modern healthcare a luxury that only the country’s wealthiest can afford.

“It seems that the reason why the party’s Political Bureau put the quarantine on the meeting’s agenda and emphasized its importance is because our poor medical facilities can only handle so much, and if this gets worse, it will be a threat to the safety of the system.”

“It seems that the reason why the party’s Political Bureau put the coronavirus quarantine on the agenda and emphasized quarantine again is that the spread of the infectious disease caused by our poor medical facilities is becoming serious again, and that if it gets worse, it is a threat to the safety of the system,” the source said.

RFA was unable to independently confirm any dismissals of officials from North Korea’s quarantine command as of Thursday afternoon.