Kim Jong-un acted quickly. On January 22, 2020, North Korea closed its borders with China and Russia to stop a new, mysterious virus from spreading into the country. More than a year later, the hermit kingdom’s border remains sealed tight shut. North Korea’s response to the pandemic has been one of the most extreme and paranoid in the world, experts say.
The real impact of Covid-19 on North Korea—and its citizens—remains a mystery. Faced with a global health crisis, the country has turned inward more than ever. “North Korea, in general, is more difficult to know this year or last year than at almost any point in the last two decades,” says Sokeel Park, director of research at Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a group that works with defectors from the country to understand what happens inside its borders.
The closest that officials got to admitting there might be a case was in July when state newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported that a “state of emergency” had been declared in Kaesong City, in the south of the country. The newspaper reported that a defector who had returned to the country from South Korea was “suspected” to have Covid-19. But the case was never confirmed. Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, has hit back at suggestions from South Korea that the country may have had cases, describing such talk as “reckless.”
From the outside, it is impossible to know the scale of the Covid-19 crisis in North Korea. International diplomats and humanitarian groups have largely left the country. The result is that little reliable information finds its way out of North Korea. Those with contacts inside the country and who work with defectors also say it has been impossible to work out the reality of the health situation on the ground.
As for vaccines: At the end of November it was reported that state-sponsored hackers had targeted AstraZeneca; South Korea has reported attempts on its own vaccine infrastructure, and Microsoft has also found similar hacking efforts linked to North Korea. The country has since quietly requested international help in obtaining vaccines. Analysis of vaccine distribution predicts that the jabs may be widely available in North Korea in 2022 or 2023.