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How bad is the COVID-19 pandemic in North Korea? Here’s what we know

Couple walking along street in Pyongyang, North Korea
A couple walk along a street in Pyongyang, North Korea, on the Day of the Sun, the birthday of late leader Kim Il Sung.
(Jon Chol Jin / Associated Press)

After saying for months that it has kept COVID-19 at bay, North Korea on Wednesday came its closest to admitting that its anti-coronavirus campaign has been less than perfect.

Leader Kim Jong Un’s mention during a ruling party meeting of a “great crisis” created by a “crucial” failure in national pandemic measures has triggered outside speculation about how bad the situation in North Korea really is.

A look at some of the clues:

Experts divided over epidemic

Du Hyeong Cha, an analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said the North could be dealing with a huge coronavirus outbreak that has spread beyond border towns and rural areas and is now reaching urban centers, possibly including the capital, Pyongyang.

Though North Korea has told the World Health Organization that it has not found a single coronavirus infection after testing more than 30,000 people, experts widely doubt its claim considering the country’s poor health infrastructure. Cha said North Korea has no other way to deal with outbreaks than quarantining people and locking down entire areas until transmissions subside.

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has faced rumors about his health on previous occasions when he walked with a cane and missed a major state anniversary.

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Other experts, including Park Won Gon, a professor of North Korea studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, said the large Politburo meeting attended by party officials from across the country would have been planned in advance and might have not taken place if the coronavirus were circulating aggressively.

In case of large outbreaks, the North would deploy extreme measures to seal off affected regions, something outside monitoring groups haven’t detected, said Ahn Kyung-su, the head of the Seoul-based Research Center of DPRK Health and Welfare.

Is it about power shakeup?

Most analysts agree that Kim’s remarks indicate a development that’s significant enough to warrant a shakeup of Pyongyang’s leadership.

The North’s state media said Kim berated senior party and government officials for neglecting “important decisions of the party on taking organizational, institutional, material, scientific and technological measures as required by the prolonged state emergency epidemic prevention campaign.”

After declaring three years ago that his country had fulfilled its decades-long ambition to become a nuclear power, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un turned his attention to fixing an ailing economy that was undermining his pledge to better the lives of his people.

The report also said that during the meeting, the party recalled an unidentified member of the Politburo’s powerful Presidium, which consists of Kim and four other top officials. It’s possible that Kim could be sacking his Cabinet Premier Kim Tok Hun, his top economic official, or Jo Yong Won, a secretary of the party’s Central Committee who had been seen as a fast riser in Pyongyang’s power circle.

Call for outside help?

Even if it was dealing with an alarming rise in infections, it’s highly unlikely that the North would admit it. Still, Kim’s decision to publicly address a major setback in the fight against the pandemic could also be an appeal for outside help.

Cha said the North could request stronger assistance from China, its main ally and economic lifeline, as the two nations approach the 60th anniversary of their friendship treaty next month.

Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University, said Kim’s efforts to find scapegoats for the outbreak could also be in preparation for accepting COVID-19 vaccines from abroad.

COVAX, the U.N.-backed program to distribute vaccines worldwide, said in February that the North could receive 1.9 million doses in the first half of the year. But the plans have been delayed because of global shortages.

Kim Sin-gon, a professor at Seoul’s Korea University College of Medicine, said that Kim Jong Un probably was aiming to raise international awareness of the North’s pandemic-related difficulties.


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