PYONGYANG, North Korea — The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a socialist state located in East Asia on the Korean peninsula. Kim Jong Un, the alleged “Great Successor,” rules the country as a totalitarian dictator. He came into power after Kim Jong Il died in 2011. Since his inauguration, Kim Jong Un has tightened border control, further closing the country off from the outside world. Moreover, his regime continues to suppress freedom of speech. Therefore, little is known about North Korea except for what the government announces. The same can be said in the case of COVID-19 in North Korea.
No COVID-19 Cases
North Korea claims to have no cases of coronavirus, which Kim Jong Un deems to be a “shining success” of his government. Dr. Edwin Salvador, the World Health Organization representative in North Korea, supports these claims. He states that the testing of 698 nationals and 11 foreigners all came back negative.
On January 23, North Korea banned all foreign visitors from the country in response to the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China. However, with this edict comes severe economic ramifications. Especially, considering the country relies dearly on trade with China in order to sustain itself.
Undernourishment, Healthcare and COVID-19
According to the World Food Programme, more than 40% of North Korea’s population is undernourished, which is more than 11 million people. Moreover, this lack of nourishment cripples one out of every five children, stunting their growth for life. Now, with trade cut off from China and mandatory nationwide quarantine, this problem could very soon become a major crisis.
Medical experts warn that widespread infection of COVID-19 in North Korea could be a humanitarian disaster. The impoverished state’s healthcare system does not have the capacity to handle high scale infection, nor would the people be okay on their own. Due to undernourishment, millions of people have weakened immune systems and are thus highly susceptible to succumbing to the virus.
Speculation About COVID-19 in North Korea
North Korea has not officially confirmed any coronavirus cases, but the Japanese Minister of Defense, Taro Kono, and the U.S. commander of forces in South Korea suspect it is spreading within the country. Every country in East Asia has reported at least one case of COVID-19 except for North Korea. This leads to speculation, especially in light of other evidence that supports this doubt. For example, Kim Jong Un has only made seven public appearances of late. By this time last year, he had made 46 public appearances. Moreover, North Korea’s military has been eerily quiet as of late, carrying out little to no demonstrations.
More Humanitarian Concerns
Taro Kono also warns that North Korea had a particularly bad harvest this year. If it is anything like the North Korean famine of 1994, the so-named “Arduous March” that lasted for four years, then humanitarians should be extremely worried. According to an estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Arduous March caused the deaths of more than 500,000 people. Now, the threat of a famine coupled with the potentiality of COVID-19 in North Korea places millions of people in severe danger.
Organizations around the world are trying to help. While the World Health Organization continues to claim there are no cases of COVID-19 in North Korea, they offered to send medical equipment and supplies. Russia has also sent test kits. The International Federation of Red Cross seeks to send money to its office in North Korea. Finally, both the U.S. State Department and South Korea stand by ready to help.
– Jacob Pugmire