This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Authorities in North Korea are going house to house looking for suspected coronavirus cases after widespread travel last week for Chuseok, the fall harvest holiday, sources in the country told RFA.
During Chuseok – the Korean version of a holiday also celebrated at the autumn equinox in China and Vietnam and often likened to Thanksgiving in the U.S. — Koreans travel to their hometowns to honor their ancestors with their extended families.
Authorities fear that extensive travel during the holiday may have spread the coronavirus.
“After Chuseok, neighborhood watch units were organized with members of the neighborhood watch unit in Songchon county to check for residents with fevers by the order of the county’s quarantine authority,” a resident of South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang told RFA’s Korean Service Sept. 23.
“As residents moved around the county to visit their ancestors’ graves during Chuseok, the authorities are concerned that the coronavirus could have been spread,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
Prior to Chuseok, the county’s quarantine authorities would walk the streets to crack down on citizens for violations like not wearing masks, but now that the neighborhood watch units are involved, the scope of their mission has changed.
“Early in the morning, the patrols knock on the door of each house, saying they are looking for coronavirus patients, and the residents are getting angry about it.”
Another source, a resident of South Pyongan’s Eunsan county, confirmed to RFA the same day that neighborhood watch units there were searching for suspected coronavirus patients there as well.
“The central government is introducing these quarantine measures, saying that success or failure of the after-Chuseok quarantine depends on local officials taking proactive measures. If suspected cases of COVID-19 occur in their region, local officials will be held responsible,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“But quarantine officials in the provincial cities are also complaining about orders from the central government for pestering local officials. They say, ‘Is it even possible to completely prevent coronavirus when we don’t’ even have sufficient masks?’”
Though North Korea still maintains outwardly that it has not confirmed a single case of coronavirus, for most of the pandemic it has been operating under state-mandated “emergency quarantine measures,” and the border with China, a vital economic lifeline, has been closed since January, 2020.
So-called “suspected cases” of COVID-19 are isolated, and in cases of death, the bodies are hastily cremated before coronavirus can be listed as the cause of death.
Citizens are becoming resentful of the authorities for continuing to emphasize emergency quarantine measures while also holding large-scale public events like military parades and other mass gatherings.
“It is complete nonsense to emphasize the quarantine project while holding a crowded event where people aren’t even wearing masks. It’s making residents strongly criticize the emergency quarantine guidelines,” a resident of Chongjin in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA.
“Recently the authorities have been giving out quarantine guidelines to companies and neighborhood watch units every day to continue to aggressively push the emergency quarantine project until the global health crisis ends,” the Chongjin source said.
The guidelines are sent nationwide and call upon local governments to implement a quarantine plan laid out by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to the Chongjin source.
Another North Hamgyong resident, from the city of Hoeryong, told RFA the same day, “If you look at how they held a huge military parade for the anniversary of North Korea’s founding on Sept. 9, and how a large number of Pyongyang citizens participated, you can see that their emergency quarantine policy is not realistic.”
“They keep saying that their quarantine measures are infallible, and the moment we loosen control, the country and the people will face severe consequences. But that’s confusing,” said the Hoeryong source.
The residents complain about the seeming contradiction.
“They sarcastically ask if the country is holding parades and mass games in the interest of protecting life and keeping the people safe.”