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North Korea to impose hard labor sentences for COVID-19 gathering violations

North Korean soldiers watch a repatriation ceremony from a tower on the North Korean side Military Demarkation Line. (SRA JEFFREY ALLEN/WikiCommons)
August 14, 2021

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

North Korea will impose hard-labor sentences on citizens who gather and dine in groups of more than three in violation of coronavirus quarantine rules, sources in the country told RFA.

The measure is the latest aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 in North Korea, which claims to be virus-free but has steadily ratcheted up preventative measures since the pandemic began 18 months ago.

Pyongyang has locked down entire cities and counties, closed its economically vital border with China, and hastily cremated bodies of people who died of coronavirus symptoms. In 2020, authorities told the public in educational lectures that the virus was spreading in geographically distant areas of the country.

The government is now telling citizens they will be punished for gatherings of more than three people, unless they live in the same household.

“If four or more people except immediate family gather to eat or drink these days, even if they are relatives, the disease control authorities will send them to a disciplinary labor center for violating the coronavirus quarantine,” a resident of South Pyongan province, near the capital Pyongyang, told RFA’s Korean Service Aug. 7.

“There was an order from the central disease control authorities to take preventative measures against coronavirus variants,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

The measure has put a damper on weddings, 60th birthday celebrations, and other key family events, so it is particularly harsh, according to the source.

“If guests sit around to eat or drink together even in a small gathering for an event like a parent’s 60th birthday or a baby’s first birthday, not only the guests, but the owner of the house who serves the meal will be sent to the disciplinary labor center or given a large fine,” the source said.

“When a resident of Songchon county had his son’s wedding at home in mid-July, he served meals and alcohol to the guests… He was fined a large sum of money instead of going to the disciplinary labor center,” said the source.

The moratorium on gatherings has caused people to give up on getting married during the pandemic, according to the source.

“There are no weddings these days, and children who prepare for their parents’ 60th birthday even in a small way can’t invite relatives or coworkers to celebrate even if they want to. So instead they spend the 60th birthday quietly with their immediate family,” the source said.

“Even if the people meeting are relatives, they cannot eat or drink with four or more people unless they live in the same house,” the source said.

Another source, a resident of the northwestern province of North Pyongan, told RFA that weddings, funerals and other huge events have been on hold there since the beginning of the pandemic early last year.

“Residents’ opposition to the ban on events is growing, so the authorities have eased quarantine regulations, including exempting weddings from the ban,” the second source said.

“But as the number of ‘suspected coronavirus patients’ with high fever continues to increase here since June, the disease control authorities have begun to crack down on gatherings of more than three guests as a quarantine violation,” said the second source.

RFA previously reported that North Korea isolates people who are sick with coronavirus symptoms, labelling them as “suspected” coronavirus patients, but the government maintains that it has not confirmed a single case.

Even though they previously exempted weddings, the authorities are justifying the renewed crackdown by saying that the weddings are still allowed, if people observe the quarantine rules, according to the second source.

“Residents say that the measures the authorities have come up with to stop the coronavirus is nothing more than grounding and controlling us, without even providing a single mask,” the second source said.

“If we keep with the authorities’ disease control rules, not only will we miss celebrations…we will find it even more difficult to make a living.”

South Korea has also banned large gatherings as a pandemic prevention measure.

Reuters news agency reported on Aug. 6 that South Korea extended recently enacted rules that limit gatherings in Seoul and the surrounding areas to two people after 6 p.m. and four people elsewhere in the country.

But unlike in North Korea, South Korean violators pay fines instead of serving a sentence in a labor camp.

According to the Korea Herald newspaper, the fine for violating similar rules that limited gatherings to five people at the end of 2020 was three million won (U.S $2,600) for restaurants and 100,000 won for customers.