Category: Humanitarian Aid and Relief

Red Cross trains thousands of North Koreans to help cope with coronavirus

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The Red Cross has trained 43,000 North Korean volunteers to help communities, including the locked-down city of Kaesong, fight the novel coronavirus and provide flood assistance, an official with the relief organization said on Monday.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared an emergency last month and imposed a lockdown on Kaesong, near the inter-Korean border, after a man who defected to the South in 2017 returned to the city showing coronavirus symptoms.

Heavy rain and flooding in recent days have also sparked concern about crop damage and food supplies in the isolated country.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has built an extensive network of North Korean volunteers to help residents in all nine provinces to avoid the virus and reduce damage from floods and landslides, spokesman Antony Balmain said.

North Korea has not confirmed any coronavirus cases but has enforced strict quarantine measures. South Korea has said there is no evidence the returning defector was infected.

The IFRC last month provided North Korea with kits designed to run up to 10,000 coronavirus tests, alongside infrared thermometers, surgical masks, gowns and protective gears.

[Reuters]

The defector who returned to North Korea, Kim Geum-hyok

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After three years of living in South Korea, defector Kim Geum-hyok returned to his native North Korea — swimming across the same river he’d crossed in 2017, South Korean officials said. North Korea has accused him of bringing coronavirus into the country for the first time, and resulted in putting Kaesong, Mr. Kim’s hometown, under lockdown.

Weeks before his departure, ​Mr. Kim, now 24, gave several interviews on a friend’s YouTube channel, ​talking about his life in the ​two Koreas. Even before Mr. Kim went back, his story was an unusual one. Firstly Mr. Kim made the dangerous decision to cross the inter-Korean border. Second, after defecting he made the rare decision to return.

In one of the YouTube interviews, Mr. Kim said he had lost most of his hearing at an early age. “Because of that, I had difficulty communicating with people,” he said. “I was ​beaten because I was told to bring one thing and brought some​ thing else.” When he was still a child, Kaesong, a city of 300,000, was chosen as the site of an industrial park run jointly by the two Koreas. Kaesong became a boomtown, awash with cash. Mr. Kim’s cousins worked at the park, he said, and he himself ​sold eggs and vegetables.

But four years ago, the South ​shut down​ the complex ​in a dispute ​over the North’s nuclear weapons program. The economy crashed, and Mr. Kim, like many others, was soon out of work. (Last month, with inter-Korean relations at another low, the North blew up an office in Kaesong that it had jointly operated with the South.) By June of 2017, Mr. Kim ​said he “saw no hope for the future, no meaning in life, wondering ​whether I should continue to live or die.” Seeing the South Korean buildings at night compelled him to “go there and check it out even if that meant my death,” he said.

Mr. Kim settled in the South Korean town of Gimpo, across the Han River from Kaesong. ​A doctor corrected the hearing problem that he had lived with since childhood. He said he cried that day.

He missed his parents deeply. He had enrolled in a vocational school, as part of the resettlement program that the South offers to defectors, but he said he quit and found work, hoping to send money to his family, as defectors often do through middlemen in China.

Off camera, according to the friend with the YouTube channel, Mr. Kim confided that he was being investigated by the police because another defector had accused him of raping her. He said that he had been so drunk on the night in question that he couldn’t remember anything. The police in Gimpo confirmed that a warrant had been issued for his arrest.

On July 18, officials say, Mr. Kim sent his last text message to the friend with the YouTube channel: “I really didn’t want to lose you because you were like a big sister to me,” he wrote. “I will repay my debt ​to you ​no matter where I live, as long as I live.”

South Korean officials concluded that Mr. Kim then crossed the border by crawling through a drain, three feet in diameter, that runs underneath barbed-wire fences ​on Ganghwa’s north shore. That led him to the Han River, which they believe he swam back across.

[New  York Times]

Kim Jong Un puts Kaesong on lockdown over suspected coronavirus case

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Kim Jong Un placed Kaesong on lockdown after a person was discovered with suspected symptoms, state media reported Sunday. Kaesong, with an estimated population of 200,000, is located just north of the heavily fortified border with South Korea.

Kim said he took “the preemptive measure of totally blocking Kaesong City and isolating each district and region from the other” on Friday afternoon, the state-run news agency said.

North Korea said respiratory secretion and blood tests showed the person “is suspected to have been infected” with the coronavirus and has since been quarantined. People who had been in contact with the patient and those who have been in Kaesong in the last five days were also quarantined.

NK News, an organization that tracks North Korean state-run media, said the person crossed the border on July 19. South Korean state media indicates the person is someone who fled to South Korea three years ago before illegally returning early last week.

If the person is officially declared a coronavirus patient, he or she would be North Korea’s first confirmed case. As the coronavirus has spread globally and shut down various countries this year, North Korea has steadfastly said it has had no cases of the virus, a claim questioned by outside experts.

In late March, the Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun reported more than 100 North Korean soldiers who were stationed at the border with China died from the virus. The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo also claimed that Kim was spending “considerable time” away from the capital of Pyongyang due to the virus.

[Fox News]

How North Korean defectors communicate with family back home

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North Korean phones are screened by the Ministry of State Security first to prevent them from being used in any non-permitted ways, so cannot be used to communicate with those in other countries.

Because of this, North Koreans use Chinese-made phones that have been purchased from smugglers, and contact relatives through an app WeChat, allowing voice calls, text messages, and video calls.

WeChat is also used to send money to loved ones in North Korea so they can maintain a living and eat their next meal. The transfer process involves the money passing through several countries before reaching the recipient in North Korea. After initial links are established through these networks in both North and South Korea, money is sent to the account of a Chinese middle-man, who takes a cut for themselves.

There are many shops in the China-North Korea border regions that are jointly run by people from both countries. At such places, at a pre-arranged time and date, the money originally sent by the defector is given over to the North Korean broker. The transfer is conducted not in South or North Korean won but in Chinese yuan.

The North Korean broker then takes their cut before taking the money and delivering it to the other side of the border.

After all is said and done, around seventy percent of the original amount makes its way into the hands of the recipient. Some unscrupulous brokers, however, take more, leaving only around half of the original sum.

[NK News]

Coronavirus in North Korea: Kim Jong-un claims ‘shining success’

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has hailed his country’s “shining success” in dealing with Covid-19, according to state news agency KCNA. Speaking at a politburo meeting, Kim said the country had “prevented the inroad of the malignant virus and maintained a stable situation”.

North Korea closed its borders and put thousands into isolation six months ago as the virus swept across the globe. It claims that it has no virus cases, though analysts say this is unlikely. Whatever the reality of the situation, Pyongyang wants to appear confident that it has crushed Covid-19.

Kim is said to have “analyzed in detail the six month-long national emergency anti-epidemic work” and said the success in handling the virus was “achieved by the far-sighted leadership of the Party Central Committee”.

But he stressed the importance of maintaining “maximum alert without… relaxation on the anti-epidemic front”, adding that the virus was still present in neighboring countries. “He repeatedly warned that hasty relief of anti-epidemic measures will result in unimaginable and irretrievable crisis,” said the KCNA report on Friday.

North Korea has now reopened schools, but has kept a ban on public gatherings and made it compulsory for people to wear masks in public places, said a Reuters report on 1 July quoting a World Health Organization official.

[BBC]

Is there declining South Korean public support for humanitarian aid to North Korea?

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Previous public opinion surveys have shown strong South Korean public support for humanitarian food aid to North Korea.

In March 2020, 38North implemented a web survey: South Korean respondents were randomly assigned one of following three versions about providing humanitarian aid to North Korea.

  • Version 1: Do you think South Korea should give more humanitarian aid to North Korea than they are giving now?
  • Version 2: South Korea has allocated approximately 680 billion won for humanitarian aid to North Korea for 2020. Do you think South Korea should give more humanitarian aid to North Korea than they are giving now?
  • Version 3: South Korea has allocated approximately 680 billion won for humanitarian aid to North Korea for 2020. This comprises less than one-tenth of one percent of the national budget. Do you think South Korea should give more humanitarian aid to North Korea than they are giving now?

They found that how aid is presented matters. When provided with no information about allocations, only around 36 percent support expanding aid. However, when the actual budget of 680 billion Korean won is provided in the question, public support for expanding aid further decreases by approximately 11 percent. Even when the budget is contextualized in terms of the national budget, support declines by about 8 percent.

Additionally, findings suggest knowing a North Korean who has moved to South Korea generates broader sympathy for providing aid.

Overall, evidence suggests a public disconnect between support for peace and unification and a willingness to expand humanitarian aid that would support those efforts.

[Read full story at 38North]

China proposes lifting North Korea sanctions

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China’s top diplomat called on the United States to ease North Korea sanctions, as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un discussed strengthening nuclear deterrence, according to state media reports.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Sunday action is more important between the United States and North Korea than “sitting down to discuss” differing points of view. Wang said Washington and Pyongyang need to take action in order to promote “mutual trust” and “overcome the deadlock.”

“In the past few years, North Korea has taken active steps to relieve tensions and denuclearize, but regrettably it has been unable to obtain a substantial response from the United States, which has led to stalled U.S.-North Korea talks,” Wang said, referring to sanctions.

China has offered to provide a mediating role between the United States and North Korea in recent years. In September at the United Nations General Assembly, Wang called on the United States and North Korea to “build trust through synchronized actions.”

“The way forward is parallel progress in denuclearization,” Wang had said last year, referring to a step-by-step denuclearization supported by Beijing.

[UPI]

North Korea claim it has no coronavirus cases

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As China placed a northeastern city on lockdown due to the novel coronavirus disease, nearby North Korea continued to claim zero instances of the infectious illness and even showed signs of opening up in some areas.

Authorities in China’s city of Shulan, Jilin province, have steadily intensified quarantine measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 after a cluster of new cases earlier this month. On Monday, city government officials announced additional measures that severely limit movement within the city.

But as China races to curb the feared outbreak in Shulan, North Korean officials reported the virus has been thwarted, just across the border.

The latest situation report published Tuesday by the World Health Organization said North Korea registered having no cases of COVID-19. North Korea is among a group of about a dozen countries around the world to have not registered any instances of a disease that has infected nearly 5 million people around the world.

Russia’s ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora supported North Korea’s claim by praising Pyongyang’s “decisive and tough measures” taken early on in the coronavirus crisis in an interview Wednesday with the Interfax News outlet. “I am inclined to trust what is being reported about the absence of infection in the DPRK,” Matsegora said, referring to North Korea by an acronym for its official title, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Pyongyang was the first to institute travel bans, border closures and other strict anti-epidemic measures as reports of the virus emerged back in January.

[Newsweek]

Still a “zero virus” claim by North Korea

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North Korea says it has zero coronavirus infections, but experts doubt it and say it’s likely the virus has spread in the country.

During the previous SARS outbreak and flu pandemics in North Korea, Dr. Choi Jung Hun didn’t have much more than a thermometer, with no test kits and working with antiquated equipment. He and his fellow doctors in the northeastern city of Chongjin were often unable to determine who had a disease, even after patients died, said Choi. He said that local health officials weren’t asked to confirm cases or submit them to the central government in Pyongyang. Choi adds his monthly salary was the equivalent of about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of rice and that he received cigarettes from patients in return for telling them what medicine they should buy at markets.

In 2012 Choi fled to South Korea, and recently shared the above in an Associated Press interview.

Experts say North Korea’s reluctance to admit major outbreaks of disease, its wrecked medical infrastructure and its extreme sensitivity to any potential threat to Kim Jong Un’s authoritarian rule means that Pyongyang is likely handling the current coronavirus pandemic in the same manner. This has led to widespread skepticism over the nation’s claim to have zero infections.

“It’s a lie,” Choi, 45, said. “Year after year, and in every season, diverse infectious diseases repeatedly occur but North Korea says there isn’t any outbreak.”

Outsiders strongly suspect that coronavirus has spread to North Korea because the country shares a long, porous border with China, its most important trading partner. North Korea, which has quarantined tens of thousands and delayed the school year as precautionary steps, officially sealed its border with China in January, but smuggling across the frontier still likely happens.

Russia’s foreign ministry said in February it donated 1,500 coronavirus test kits to North Korea, and observers say similar kits have also been shipped there from China. Some relief agencies, including UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders, said they sent gloves, masks, goggles and hand hygiene products to North Korea.

Activist groups in Seoul said they’ve been told by contacts in North Korea that people had died of the virus. Those claims cannot be independently verified.

[AP]

North Korea calls for stronger coronavirus measures

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North Korea has called for stricter and more thorough measures against the coronavirus at a meeting presided over by its leader Kim Jong Un, state media reported, without acknowledging whether the country had reported any infections.

The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Sunday that the virus had created obstacles to the country’s effort in its economic construction, describing the pandemic as “a great disaster threatening the whole mankind, regardless of borders and continents”. 

KCNA reassured North Korea “has been maintaining [a] very stable anti-epidemic situation” thanks to its “strict top-class emergency anti-epidemic measures … consistency and compulsoriness in the nationwide protective measures.”

Officials have previously insisted the North remains totally free of the virus. 

Experts have said North Korea is particularly vulnerable to the virus because of its weak healthcare system, and defectors have accused Pyongyang of covering up an outbreak.

A joint resolution was adopted “on more thoroughly taking national measures for protecting the life and safety of our people to cope with the worldwide epidemic disease”, it said. The resolution also included goals of “continuously intensifying the nationwide emergency anti-epidemic services and pushing ahead with the economic construction, increasing national defence capability and stabilizing the people’s livelihood this year”.

But photos released by North Korea’s state media showed that none of the committee members who attended the meeting including Kim Jong Un was wearing a mask nor sitting far apart from each other.

[Various News Agencies]