North Korea's escalating virus response raises fear of outbreak

Nicola Smith
·2 min read
Health care precautions have been stepped up in North Korea, but the government have yet to confirm the first case of the novel coronavirus - KIM WON JIN  /AFP
Health care precautions have been stepped up in North Korea, but the government have yet to confirm the first case of the novel coronavirus - KIM WON JIN /AFP

North Korea has quarantined thousands of people despite inconclusive test results for a man suspected of being its first official coronavirus case, raising suspicions about a wider unreported outbreak in the reclusive country.

Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, last week declared a state of emergency and imposed a lockdown on the city of Kaesong on the South Korean border after a defector who crossed back over the border to escape a rape investigation reportedly displayed suspected Covid-19 symptoms. 

North Korea experts said Pyongyang’s claim that the virus may have leaked in via a returning defector fit the North’s traditional narrative of blaming the South for its troubles.

Staff disinfect gym equipment at the Ryugyong Health Complex in Pyongyang - Kim Won Jin/AFP
Staff disinfect gym equipment at the Ryugyong Health Complex in Pyongyang - Kim Won Jin/AFP

The inconclusive diagnosis tallies with Seoul’s assertion that the 24-year-old man who fled back North was not infected with the coronavirus. The South Korean military did confirm that he had swum across the border from the western island of Gwanghwa after crawling through a drain under barbed wire fences.

However, more than 3,600 people remain locked down in Kaesong, a WHO official told Reuters, while the authorities ship in food and other aid. The response has reinforced doubts about Pyongyang’s consistent claim that the country is virus-free, suggesting it may actually be facing an emergency.

In a report to the WHO, North Korea said it has quarantined 64 first contacts of the suspected Kaesong case and thousands of secondary contacts in state-run facilities for a period of 40 days.

North Korean state media say Kim Jong-un will protect the health of his people 'at any cost' - STR/AFP
North Korean state media say Kim Jong-un will protect the health of his people 'at any cost' - STR/AFP

Earlier this year, North Korea introduced draconian measures, including an entry ban and the quarantine of all foreigners, to keep the coronavirus from wreaking havoc on its crumbling public health system and a population already weakened by malnutrition.  

But foreign experts are highly sceptical of North Korea’s insistence that it has no cases, despite having a long and porous border with China, its biggest trading partner.

Many are all but certain the virus has already entered North Korea, although the lack of access to the hermit kingdom has hampered the establishing of conclusive evidence.