Inside North Korea’s covid outbreak and its vulnerable population

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TOKYO — It’s always been difficult to get an accurate picture of what’s going on in North Korea, one of the most closed countries in the world. But his handling of covid has been particularly enigmatic, with potentially lasting ramifications for the well-being of his people – and neighboring countries – amid a worsening humanitarian crisis.

North Korea’s self-proclaimed “public health crisis” appears to have mysteriously subsided as quickly as it spread, according to state media. Less than three weeks after announcing its first official positive coronavirus case which led to an “explosive” spread of fever symptoms affecting more than 3.7 million people (out of a population of 25 million), North Korea announces a rapid drop in new cases and a “Turning Point” in the outbreak response.

But international public health officials warn there is no way to substantiate these claims. This week, a senior World Health Organization official raised concerns that things could actually get worse inside the impoverished country, which has a fragile health system, limited supplies and no coronavirus vaccine.

“It’s not good for the people of [North Korea]. It’s not good for the region. It’s not good for the world,” said WHO emergency chief Michael Ryan. “We assume the situation is getting worse, not better.”

What you need to know about the covid crisis hitting North Korea

When the latest outbreak was first announced, Ryan warned that with its poor health infrastructure and lack of vaccines, North Korea could become a breeding ground for new variants that could threaten people beyond its borders.

Expert analysis, limited trade data, satellite imagery and the accounts of North Korean defectors and informants provide clues to help understand the severity of North Korea’s covid crisis – all the more as authorities assess whether to ease lockdown measures as the outbreak is expected to ebb.

Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, North Korea has not reported any positive coronavirus cases – a dubious claim, given outside reports of likely exposure along its border with China. But on May 12, North Korea reported its first positive case of omicron’s BA.2 subvariant. It has since diligently issued daily updates on the spread of “fever”, an apparent euphemism for potential coronavirus cases due to its lack of testing capacity.

The sudden change in behavior has experts wondering: why has North Korea decided to disclose its cases now? Have the cases really improved as quickly as he claims?

The exodus of foreigners in the pandemic means the full impact of covid may not be known for many years, until aid workers can reintegrate and new defectors can provide first-hand accounts. For example, the extent of the 1990s famine in North Korea was not known until researchers interviewed the wave of defectors who subsequently fled.

Leader Kim Jong Un’s announcement of the spread of the coronavirus indicates that the outbreak could no longer be contained quietly at the local level, especially given the high concentration of cases in his capital Pyongyang, where the elites reside. said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former intelligence officer. North Korean media propaganda analyst and expert.

In fact, North Korea has used an extremely rare, if not unprecedented, term to describe a crisis to its domestic audience, Lee said: the “great upheaval since the founding of the state.” Kim also provided unusually detailed information on the number of infections and deaths, which is likely to spark public disbelief, she said.

One reason could be to project the regime’s control of the outbreak through its nationwide public health campaign and show it takes concerns in Pyongyang seriously, experts say.

This week, North Korean authorities “positively assessed” the control of the virus and reviewed plans to ease restrictions, according to state media. If North Korea’s figures are correct, its fever cases have fallen below 100,000 in recent days, a significant drop from nearly 400,000 at the end of May.

North Korea coronavirus cases and deaths rise as Kim blames those responsible

Tae Yong-ho, a London-based former North Korean diplomat who defected in 2016, said it’s “quite likely” the spread of the virus has slowed due to Kim’s lockdown policy. Over the past three weeks, Kim “has been described as the nation’s heroic and benevolent savior.”

“This is how North Korean government propaganda manipulates the situation in favor of Kim Jong Un’s regime in any case; there is a crisis but it needs to be solved and overcome by the dear leader who is benevolent, wise and able like a god,” said Tae, now a member of the South Korean National Assembly.

When the pandemic first broke out, North Korea quickly halted overland trade with China and banned travel between its provinces. But in the first quarter of 2022 it reopened at low levels of trade with China, which may have exposed it to covid.

The cases began to spread in April, state media said. A massive military parade on April 25 may have contributed to the spread as soldiers from across the country traveled to Pyongyang to train and perform, said Ryu Hyun-woo, a former North Korean ambassador to the Kuwait who defected in 2019.

“The April 25 military parade in Pyongyang seems to have been fertile ground for a superspreader event,” Ryu said. “The military parade brought together tens of thousands of people from the capital Pyongyang and from different parts of the country. A large number of people were seen without masks, which shows complacency among North Koreans about covid-19 at this time. »

Biden’s visit shows hardened positions on North Korea

Even though North Korea is reporting a drop in cases, it has emphasized quarantine measures in a sign that the regime does not believe the situation has stabilized yet, said Lee, the former intelligence analyst. North Korea has twice refused offers of vaccines from Covax, the UN-backed initiative to distribute vaccines around the world.

Meanwhile, the quality of life for ordinary North Koreans outside the privileged area of ​​Pyongyang looks grim. Kim’s lockdown order came amid what the United Nations sees as a worsening food and medicine shortage caused by its border closure.

The country’s public health situation ‘is the worst imaginable’, Ryu said, describing a lack of supply, adequate sanitation and reliable electricity even in the country’s top hospitals for residents. from Pyongyang.

Lockdown fatigue is spreading among many residents, said Lee Sang Yong, editor of the Daily NK, a Seoul-based website that reports on informants in North Korea. Those with fevers were ordered to self-isolate at home, with no way to access food from outside, he said.

“In areas under strict lockdown, people were starving as access to new crops or market purchases was limited by the lockdown measures,” Lee said.

China brings North Korea closer than ever as Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions rise

Kim also needs workers to focus on the rice planting season and is encouraged to tout virus control, Lee said. The supply of fall-harvested rice is shrinking and North Korea appears to be experiencing a prolonged drought, which does not bode well for this fall’s harvest and could worsen the severe food crisis.

Satellite images of North Korea’s rice fields suggest delays in meeting the country’s planting targets compared to last year, said Chung Song-hak of Kyungpook National University in South Korea.

Rice planting appeared to be only about two-thirds complete in images from five major rice fields this month, Chung said, lagging behind a nearly 90 percent completion rate during the same month. period last year.

This week, state media reminded the public that North Korea endured the 1990s famine and other hardships and can overcome its current challenges.

“It is the strong fighting spirit of the Korean people that simultaneously pushes forward the epidemic control and economic construction,” he insisted.

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