While there are no reported cases of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), reporters and experts continue to speculate that Pyongyang is covering up an outbreak and that leader Kim Jong Un is riding out the crisis far from the metropolitan capital.
Kim Drilling Army Far From Capital
According to media reports, Kim has been absent from Pyongyang since February 26, when he traveled to the eastern city of Wonsan to oversee a variety of military drills, including the March 2 and March 9 test firing of short-range projectiles in the Sea of Japan.
Kim Dong Yub, a professor at Changwon’s Kyungnam University, told the Seoul-based Korea Times on Friday that “if Kim went to the Wonsan area at the end of February, he has been staying in the eastern region for over 10 days. It could be related to the COVID-19 situation in Pyongyang.”
The DPRK hasn’t reported any cases of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, which broke out in central China late last year. That may owe, in part, to the socialist government’s quick response: when Beijing took drastic measures in January to curb the spread of the virus from Hubei Province, Pyongyang followed suit, imposing strict border controls and quarantining both foreigners and Koreans who came in contact with them, as well as obtaining test kits from China and Russia.
‘Super Special’ Prevention Measures
“Inspection and quarantine of imports are being tightened,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on March 13. “The inspection and quarantine units at all levels in Pyongyang and local areas carry out thoroughgoing inspection and disinfection of vehicles, vessels and goods, and leave imports in natural state of tight closure for 10 days before handing them over to relevant units according to proper procedure and order.”
Citing reports from the Pyongyang-based Korean Central Broadcasting Station, Yonhap News Agency reported on March 8 that 3,560 out of roughly 7,000 people had been released from quarantine, including 221 of 380 foreigners, according to KCNA.
A member from an emergency anti-epidemic headquarters in Mangyongdae District disinfects a tramcar of Songsan Tram Station to prevent new coronavirus infection in Pyongyang, North Korea Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.
The Friday KCNA report noted that another 990 people had been released from quarantine in North Phyongan Province and another 720 in South Phyongan Province, including more than 70 foreigners.
Sputnik has reported on the other measures taken by the North Korean government, including shutting its borders to tourists, canceling flights to Pyongyang from China and Russia, subjecting inbound passenger trains to stringent inspections, as well as promoting and enforcing the wearing of face masks in public places.
Agence France-Presse has reported that diplomats and other foreigners have been confined to their residences in the capital for weeks, and on March 9, the North Korean government evacuated dozens of diplomats from the German, French, Swiss, Polish, Romanian, Mongolian and Egyptian embassies in Pyongyang to the Russian city of Vladivostok just north of the border.
‘More Likely Than Not’ DPRK Has Cases
While the DPRK’s health system is somewhat fragile due to extremely tight US sanctions that bar importing dual-use technology with medical or industrial uses as well as military uses, the country has been so far fairly reluctant to admit aid, aside from accepted test kits. However, late last week, Pyongyang relented and allowed Doctors Without Borders to send a shipment of medical supplies across the border from China.
Despite these measures – or in some cases because of them – experts continue to speculate that the DPRK is covering up an outbreak.
Abrams noted the North Korean military has been “fundamentally in a lockdown for about 30 days and only recently have they started routine training again.”
People wear masks as they ride on a public bus in Pyongyang, North Korea Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.
Likewise, Kee Park, director of the US-based Korea Health Policy Project, told BuzzFeed News on March 12 that “despite the near-total closure of its borders — using the most restrictive set of measures we have seen anywhere — it is more likely than not that cases of COVID-19 are inside North Korea.”
However, perhaps the most outlandish claim has come from American evangelist Jerry Falwell, Jr., who told Fox News last week that COVID-19 was the “Christmas present” Kim promised the US last year.
“Could it be they got together with China and this is that present?” Falwell said to “Fox & Friends,” also suggesting the US media was blowing up the danger of the illness as “their next attempt to get” US President Donald Trump.
As of Monday, roughly 8,200 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in South Korea, and at least 75 people have died from the illness.
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