It is known for missile launches and having one of the most authoritative regimes in the world. But North Korea has recently wanted to be known for something else: avoiding a coronavirus outbreak.
- North Korea has not publicly confirmed any cases of COVID-19
- A defector who returned with symptoms had inconclusive test results
- The border city of Kaesong has reportedly been locked down
North Korea’s tightly guarded borders and lack of foreign tourists have meant the risk of transmission from travellers there has remained low.
But experts say it is almost impossible for the country to avoid the virus altogether given it shares a 1,420 kilometre border with its ally China.
New York Asian affairs analyst Sean King said he could not see how North Korea could avoid coronavirus.
“I can’t imagine North Korea has zero local COVID-19 cases,” Mr King, senior vice president at Park Strategies, said.
“But, as with [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un’s occasional disappearances from public view, we speculate as to what might actually be happening there at our peril.”
Even if North Korea’s move to shut its border with China seven months ago does prevent an outbreak, it will have come at a huge cost to the secretive Kim family which rules the country, with its main source of trade plummeting.
Kim trying to protect nation — and himself
Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst in defence strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says it is likely there are a significant number of cases inside North Korea, despite efforts by the regime to contain the spread.
Dr Davis said he believed Mr Kim’s biggest fear was not only having an outbreak in his nation, but how an explosion in infections would affect his hold on power.
“Kim faces not only a challenge in terms of preventing the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the country — a health crisis — but potentially an internal security crisis as well if COVID-19 were to get out of control,” he said.
“His greatest priority will be maintaining his grip on power personally and ensuring his family line is protected.”
He said North Korea’s extensive border with China — which remains the nation’s largest trade partner — and the potential for person-to-person transmission would remain major concerns for the regime.
“That takes on an economic dimension, especially if trade across the North Korea-China border is cut to prevent the spread of COVID-19 both ways — into China from North Korea and vice versa,” he said.
“In that sense, Kim is facing a real challenge to economic growth — [which is] already weak — national health, and ultimately preserving his power.”
Koreas at odds over whether defector took virus to North
Just last month North Korea revealed it was quarantining thousands of people and shipping food and other aid to a city locked down over coronavirus fears.
North Korean state media said it had declared a state of emergency and locked down the border city of Kaesong.
It came after a person who defected to South Korea three years ago returned across the border with what the regime said were symptoms of COVID-19.
The man reportedly swam home across the Imjin River after South Korean police issued a warrant for his arrest on rape allegations.
At the time, North Korean state media was unclear on whether the man had been tested, saying an “uncertain result was made from several medical check-ups”.
But Mr Kim declared “the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country” and authorities quarantined more than 3,600 and secondary contacts.
South Korea maintains there is no evidence the returning defector was infected.
A disease outbreak has long been Kim’s biggest fear
Mr Kim appears terrified of any pandemic hitting his country, according to Shea Cotton, a senior research associate at Washington’s James Martin Centre for non-proliferation studies.
“I recall they sealed up tight in 2014 over fears that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa might reach them,” Mr Cotton told the ABC.
“So in some ways, I feel [North Korea’s] leadership had already prepared itself mentally for a pandemic and needing to lock down.”
Mr Kim’s mysterious disappearance from public view in May could indicate he was worried about contracting it.
Mr Cotton, an expert in North Korea’s missile capabilities, said it was also entirely possible North Korea was lying about the extent of the virus in the country.
“While I doubt it’s as prevalent [there] as it is here in the US, I wouldn’t be shocked at all if they’d gotten control of it in the same way China had: with extremely strict shut-down and social-distance orders,” he said.
Mr Cotton added the virus might be more prevalent in the Korean countryside and prisons, but that would be impossible to prove from the outside.
“In Pyongyang, though, they’ve probably managed to get enough people to wear masks and social distance and test so as to limit its spread,” he said.
Either way, he said, it was hard to know if there was a massive spike in cases across North Korea due to the secretive nature of the regime.
“One thing to keep in mind, though, is that it takes constant vigilance to keep coronavirus at bay,” Mr Cotton said.
“Plenty of places that got control of it, or who had small numbers of infected people to begin with, have taken their eyes off the ball, tried to re-open, and seen their numbers balloon.
“I could imagine something similar happening with North Korea, especially this [autumn] with the harvest.”
North Korea faces own version of reopening
As the weather turns cool in September, North Korean people put all their efforts into harvesting and storing food for the winter and early spring.
“That’ll be North Korea’s equivalent of having to ‘re-open’ because doing it will require a lot of people working,” Mr Cotton said.
Many people are needed to harvest the rice fields, move the grain around and distribute it.
“While they may be working on a strategy to limit the spread, if it’s not implemented correctly, they too may see a sudden spike in cases,” he said.
Mr Cotton, who has spent several years verifying details and information about North Korea, says it would be difficult to determine anything about the virus in the hermit kingdom, but satellite information may prove a vital clue.
“I recall in Iran there were reports that mass graves could be seen from satellite images,” he said.
“This might be one of the only ways for outsiders to detect a massive outbreak in North Korea in real time.”
Kim sets up South Korea for virus blame
North Korea insists that while the rest of the world has been battling a major pandemic, it has been fine.
Mr King said Mr Kim offered “unwavering friendship” and sympathy to South Korea in early March over the outbreak.
In a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Mr Kim “conveyed his message of comfort to the South Korean people who are battling against the outbreak of COVID-19”.
But Mr King pointed out that Mr Kim’s letter implied the virus was something external to North Korea and of no concern to its citizens.
He also appeared to be shifting any blame for the pandemic from China to his rivals in the south, Mr King said.
“This tracks with general North Korean rhetoric that paints South Korea as somehow impure, or soiled, because of the South’s exposure to the outside world,” Mr King said.
“And by tying its only publicly acknowledged apparent COVID-19 case to a defector recently returned from South Korea, the North already has in place a theory to blame the South should it ever have to acknowledge any wider outbreak.”