The conservative South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo claimed on Wednesday that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un fled the nation’s capital, Pyongyang, fearing a potential infection of Chinese coronavirus.
Kim appeared in North Korean propaganda photos that Pyongyang claimed were taken on Monday directing a military drill. He did not appear to be wearing a face mask in the photos, despite state media claiming North Koreans had implemented emergency measures to prevent an outbreak.
The Chinese coronavirus originated in Wuhan, central China, in December, but Communist Party officials took over a month to identify and later notify the public to take measures to prevent an outbreak. It has since spread globally, hitting South Korea particularly painfully due to its spread from a religious congregation that had visited Wuhan. North Korea’s location between South Korea and China – as well as the communist government’s total control over news and information – make it a prime location for a severe outbreak, but Pyongyang claims it has not documented any cases of the respiratory infection within its borders.
There is no evidence that North Korean hospitals have tested anyone for the Chinese coronavirus or that they have the ability to do so.
Chosun Ilbo claimed, citing “a government source” in South Korea, that Kim had left Pyongyang “for a considerable time” after China revealed that it had identified a new type of coronavirus. The source cited “intelligence analysis,” presumably conducted by South Korean officials. The Chosun Ilbo report notes that Kim’s presence outside of Pyongyang is not news – a separate set of military drills he reportedly led last week took place in Wonsan, a port city that Kim has for years attempted to turn into a beach resort – but the fact that coronavirus fears prompted the travel does add new context to Kim’s behavior.
North Korean state media’s last glimpse of Kim for the public appeared on Tuesday, showing Kim “watching a long-range artillery strike drill a day earlier with binoculars in his hands,” according to the South Korean news service Yonhap. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the main North Korean propaganda outlet, did not specify where that drill took place.
“As an order to start the fire was given, the brave artillerymen on the front who have further sharply whetted the bayonet for the revolution with the high spirit of annihilating the enemy amid the flames of the training revolution personally kindled by the Supreme Leader and the wind of hard training for strengthening combat power, opened fire all at once,” KCNA reported.
Yonhap noted that, while Kim did not wear a face mask, some military leaders in the KCNA photos did.
“It was unclear why the leader decided not to don a mask at a time when the country is requiring people to make sure to wear a mask to prevent a coronavirus outbreak, even though Pyongyang has insisted there has been no confirmed coronavirus case in the country,” Yonhap noted.
North Korea has announced several emergency measures to keep the virus at bay, including banning foreigners from traveling to the country, flying out all foreign diplomats, and canceling major events, such as celebrations for the birthday of Kim’s father, the late dictator Kim Jong-il. Reports last month from within the country indicated that the communist country had quarantined as many as 1,300 people at a hotel to keep the virus from spreading. State media this week claimed as many as 10,000 people had been quarantined, not confirming the specific prior report but indicating that the concerns it revealed were present at the highest levels of government. The state outlet report claimed that those quarantined had come from abroad, rather than being suspected coronavirus patients exposed within North Korean borders.
Pyongyang is also reportedly threatening to execute smugglers trafficking between North Korea and China. The latter is a particularly drastic measure given that, as North Korea is currently under the strictest sanctions regime in the world, its economy heavily depends on black market trade across the Yalu River, which marks the border between North Korea and China.
To promote the use of face masks, North Korea has been publishing propaganda images for weeks appearing to show people wearing them, but clearly doctored to add in the masks to people not actually wearing them.
Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s national propaganda newspaper, listed several “nationwide top-class measures” allegedly taken to prevent the virus from spreading. Among them were alleged tours by state doctors to homes to make residents “frequently ventilate rooms, drink boiled water and thoroughly sterilize doorknobs.” Rodong also claimed extended manufacturing to make sanitary masks for public use.
Another North Korean propaganda outlet, the Pyongyang Times, claimed that North Korean communist scientists had developed “an electronic anti-epidemic mask” that “completely destroys various germs and viruses contained in the exhalation of patients so as to prevent pollution of surrounding air and infection of contacts.” The publication provided little other information.
Multiple reports have questioned the efficacy and the extent of these anti-outbreak measures. In addition to the aforementioned report of over a thousand people quarantined, whistleblowers within the country have told outlets monitoring North Korea that as many as 180 soldiers have already died after contracting the Chinese coronavirus.