North Korea continues to report no coronavirus cases but doubts have been cast on whether the infection has failed to reach the country.
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) representative to North Korea told Reuters that fewer than 1,000 people in the country have been tested but a number of its citizens are in quarantine.
“As of 2 April, 709 people – 11 foreigners and 698 nationals – have been tested for COVID-19,” said Dr Edwin Salvador, the WHO representative to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
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“There is no report of a COVID-19 case. There are 509 people in quarantine – two foreigners and 507 nationals.
“Since 31 December, 24,842 people have been released from quarantine, which includes 380 foreigners.”
It is one of five countries that do not appear to have officially reported any cases to the WHO, according to its website.
The others are Lesotho, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Yemen. North Korea, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have authoritarian governments and are ranked among the least free countries in the world by Freedom House, while Yemen is in the midst of a civil war.
The New York Times quoted a doctor who has worked with North Korean medics as saying that staff in the state may not have the ability to detect for the virus.
But the same piece also reported that Seo Jae-pyoung, the secretary-general of the Association of North Korean Defectors, called the regime’s claims a “blatant lie”.
“The last thing the North wants is a social chaos that may erupt when North Koreans realise that people are dying of an epidemic with no cure,” he told the newspaper.
US general Robert Abrams, the commander of American forces in South Korea, told CNN and Voice of America that the notion there were no cases was an “impossible claim based on all of the intel we have seen”.
The WHO has been told that North Korea received equipment to help authorities with testing by its ally China in January, and the organisation has sent protective equipment.
There are more than 1.4 million coronavirus cases confirmed around the world, with 83,000 deaths and more than 300,000 recoveries, according to Johns Hopkins University.