This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korea is confusing its citizens by telling medical workers to prepare for “battle” against coronavirus with stricter quarantine measures, all while still claiming the country remains virus free, sources in the country told RFA.
The government has been touting its success in preventing the virus with increasingly strict emergency quarantine measures. But now the people wonder if there really are no confirmed cases in the country if the authorities are saying healthcare personnel are on the front lines of a war against the virus.
“Recently, the Central Committee ordered health agencies here in South Hamgyong province to make sure that emergency quarantine projects are carried out completely,” a resident of the eastern coastal province told RFA’s Korean Service.
“The order emphasizes the role of medical and healthcare workers as the first line of defense in the emergency quarantine battle, a key task presented and the second plenary meeting of the Eighth Central Committee,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons, referring to a key meeting in February.
According to the source, the materials distributed with the order say to increase the roles and responsibilities of quarantine workers.
“As the first line of defense in our war on the virus, they are fighters who should play a leading role,” the source said.
“The materials said that the number of global infections continues to increase as new variants of the coronavirus spread rapidly around the world. They say that the majority of the newly confirmed cases are the variants, and this serious situation only highlights the importance of healthcare workers,” said the source.
Since the beginning of the pandemic North Korea has maintained that it is virus free, but this is widely doubted by outside experts, who point to Pyongyang’s extensive measures to keep COVID-19 at bay, including sacrificing its economy by closing the border with China and suspending all trade.
Additionally the government has locked down entire cities and counties where the virus was suspected to be spreading, cancelled major cultural events, and hospitals have been known to hastily cremate patients who died of flu-like symptoms.
According to the source, the new preparations for war against COVID-19 are causing the people to doubt the government’s outward claim that the virus has had no impact on the country.
“The reality is that residents are just not able to speak about it openly. Many question why there are lots of people who die from a high fever and cold symptoms with unknown causes are hastily cremated without showing their bodies to their families,” the source said.
“The materials also emphasize that healthcare workers should take pride in their positions, as it is an important opportunity to verify their loyalty to the party, the revolution, and their love for the people through the emergency quarantine projects in their regions,” said the source.
Another source, a resident of nearby North Hamgyong province, told RFA that authorities there were doing their best to ensure that factories, companies, farms, and residential districts were properly equipped to implement the quarantine measures.
“All this is because the party distributed materials from the central government to healthcare workers, asking them to devote themselves to the emergency quarantine project to prevent an influx of infectious diseases and telling them that they are responsible for the fate of the whole country and all the people,” said the second source.
Local residents are confused by the messaging, according to the second source.
“They don’t know how the authorities can say there are no confirmed cases or deaths from coronavirus due to the success of the emergency quarantine system in place, but they are putting so much emphasis on strengthening it,” the second source said.
“Because the materials frame healthcare workers and residents in terms of loyalty to the party and the revolution and love for the people, they wonder if all this is really to prevent coronavirus or if it is really a test of their loyalty.”
According to a World Health Organization (WHO) report, 24,542 people tested for coronavirus in North Korea as of April 15, but no confirmed cases were reported. North Korea tests roughly 700 people for the virus each week.
RFA reported last year that North Korea held special public informational lectures where authorities revealed that COVID-19 was spreading in three geographically distant parts of the country including North Hamgyong.
In March 2021, a North Hamgyong official told RFA that the Ministry of Health kept data on “suspected coronavirus patients” and those who died from “related symptoms,” saying that at that time the number of suspected cases in the province was about 13,000, with more than 100 deaths.