Officially, North Korea still claims to have had no cases of Covid-19. But experts think this is unlikely, and that coronavirus is having a severe impact on the country.
16 June 2020
Officially, North Korea still claims to have had no cases of Covid-19. But Open Doors sources join many in doubting this claim. One contact goes so far as to say, “Every street in North Korea has been affected by Covid-19." As news comes of the North Korean government severing contact with South Korea, even blowing up a joint liaison office near the border town of Kaesong, experts say it is increasingly likely that North Korea could be heading for another famine. Here are five ways that Covid-19 is affecting North Korea.
Illstrative image of North Koreans
North Korea closed its borders in late January, in an attempt to stop the virus from coming to the country. North Korea was already isolated, but at this point even trade with China, Pyongyang’s major supplier, was completely stopped.
Security at the borders was also increased, which affected North Korean people trying to escape to China. This is often the route taken by persecuted Christians when they attempt to flee, and Open Doors partners operate safe houses in China for those who manage to escape. If anyone attempts to escape during this period, they could be shot dead immediately.
Though North Korea claims the death toll is zero, and that nobody has been infected, the North Korean media itself admitted that there were thousands of people in quarantine and many were ‘under medical observation’. From mid-February, Pyongyang decided to close all schools and universities and brought in social distancing rules. Although the regime claims these were preventative actions, there are indications that the deadly virus had begun to spread across the country.
"Every street in North Korea has been affected by Covid-19." North Korean contact
A recent report by DailyNK, a news site run by North Korean escapees, claims that over 180 soldiers have died from Covid-19. Eleven prisoners’ deaths at the horrendous Chongori concentration camp were recorded with symptoms of coronavirus, including respiratory issues. Following their deaths, it's been reported that other inmates started having symptoms and high fevers.
The truth is we still don't know the exact figures of infections and deaths. It could be hundreds of thousands of children and adults.
There were already food shortages in North Korea, and many families live in great poverty even outside of the prison and labour camps. The UN estimates that North Korea needs 860,000 tons of grain this year, but the country hardly has any stocks of food left. Most food supplies come from a combination of imports and collective farm productions. Closing the borders is likely to exacerbate the situation greatly.
Experts on North Korea worry that the current situation will lead to another ‘Arduous March’, as the North Korean people call the great famine of the 1990s. An estimated 2-3 million people died because of that famine.
“Amid the border restrictions in North Korea, the shortages of food have quadrupled market prices”, says Timothy*, a North Korean Christian who escaped the country and now works for Open Doors. “According to a recent DailyNK report, many individual shops are now closed or are unable to sell goods because they simply have nothing to sell.”
Though North Korea does have pharmaceutical factories, both the legal and the black market in North Korea depend heavily on foreign medical supplies. The lack of imports has also led to a severe shortage of medicines, and the factories in the country have stopped making even the low-quality medicines they were producing.
Those who suffer from chronic illnesses, including diabetes, hypertension and tuberculosis, are suffering greatly. Tuberculous is widespread in this country. Today, it’s almost impossible to acquire certain medicines, including penicillin, diabetes insulin and other drugs at local markets. A North Korean smuggler said, “No food supply makes it hard enough to survive, but no medication means a great risk surrounds the entire population.” A bad situation in the country has become much worse.
"North Korea is finding ways of distracting the population from some very real problems." Stephen Rand, Open Doors
Recent severing of contact with South Korea is believed to be ‘a deliberate ploy’ to distract its citizens from the coronavirus crisis within its borders, according to Stephen Rand, an Open Doors advocacy spokesperson. “From all the reports we have received, it seems that that North Korea is finding ways of distracting the population from some very real problems.”
Meanwhile, North Korean state-controlled newspapers are emphasising that people must ‘tighten their belts’ and ‘trust in the party’ to get through this difficult period. The regime is clearly prepared to blame international sanctions if many die of starvation, further isolating the population from the outside world.
Though Christians are far from alone in being vulnerable in North Korea, the isolationism of the country and the intensifying of messaging against those who don’t ‘trust in the party’ are likely to make a horrendous situation even worse. North Korea has been the country where Christians face the most extreme persecution for almost two decades. Sadly, that doesn’t look likely to change.
Discover what life is like for Christians in North Korea - the hardest place in the world to follow Jesus - by exploring the North Korea World Watch List page.