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.