A senior health official in North Korea told the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency on Wednesday that “not one single person” in the country had tested positive for Chinese coronavirus, a claim disputed by an ever-growing chorus of observers.
The communist dictatorship, bordering two of the most severely affected countries currently battling the pandemic, has for months insisted that it has not documented any coronavirus cases within its population and credited its early decision to ban foreigners from the country for the lack of cases. Dictator Kim Jong-un has taken several actions that have brought the claim into question, however, including the rapid construction of an emergency hospital in Pyongyang and accepting foreign medical aid that North Korea would not need if it was not fighting an epidemic.
Some reports from regional publications have estimated that over 100 North Korean soldiers have died of Chinese coronavirus infections. There are no estimates regarding the total number of cases in the country. The official number is zero.
“Not one single person has been infected with the novel coronavirus in our country so far,” Pak Myong-su, director of the anti-epidemic department of the North’s Central Emergency Anti-epidemic Headquarters, told AFP on Thursday. “We have carried out pre-emptive and scientific measures such as inspections and quarantine for all personnel entering our country and thoroughly disinfecting all goods, as well as closing borders and blocking sea and air lanes.”
North Korea announced Thursday that it would begin allowing foreigners stuck in the country to visit shops, restaurants, and other businesses to feed its tourism industry, one of the few economic activities the rogue state can legally participate due to the strict international sanctions the United Nations placed on it following its last nuclear weapons test in 2017. The nearly 400 foreign citizens still in the country – many likely Chinese and Russian citizens crossing their borders into the country – were forced into quarantine to prevent community spread of the virus in the country.
According to the South Korean news agency Yonhap, Russian embassy officials, not North Korean officials, revealed the change in policy.
“The department urged all foreigners to continue to follow anti-virus regulations of each institution and wear medical masks until the state emergency system against the COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] virus has been lifted,” Yonhap reported.
Pak’s assertion that North Korea has no official cases of Chinese coronavirus followed the publication of a report this week in Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper estimated that over 100 North Korean soldiers stationed near the border with China have died with coronavirus symptoms, which include cough, difficulty breathing, fevers, body aches, and pneumonia. The report cited anonymous intelligence officials in neighboring countries and is the only estimate outside of communist regime denials of the toll the pandemic is taking on Pyongyang.
Dictator Kim Jong-un ordered the construction of a hospital in the capital in mid-March, a sign that he may be expecting a wave of sick people to hit health workers in the capital. The official statement from Pyongyang said that Kim had ordered the construction of the hospital in a “miserably self-critical” mood and that it was necessary to “better protect the precious health and safety of our people.”
On Thursday, Naenara, a North Korean state propaganda outlet, announced that Pyongyang held a “ground-breaking ceremony of the Pyongyang General Hospital on March 17.” The report acknowledged the “grip of horror” over the world thanks to the Chinese coronavirus.
“It is the firm determination and will of the WPK [Workers’ Party of Korea, the official communist party] to present a modern and splendid general hospital to the people in a matter of little more than 200 days,” Naenara stated. “Thanks to the politics, another asset conducive to the promotion of the people’s health and their wellbeing will be built in the best place of the capital city of Pyongyang.”
North Korean state media also published a flurry of articles accusing the United States, citing an unknown South Korean “university professor,” of creating the Chinese coronavirus as part of a “germ weapon experiment.” The claim that the coronavirus is an American biological weapon is the official stance of the Communist Party of China. Reputable scientists agree the virus originated in Wuhan, central China, in late 2019; no evidence exists tying it to any American military experiments.
“The U.S. illegal introduction and experiment of germ weapons posing a fatal threat to the safety of the people make it clear that south Korea-U.S. relations are not ones of alliance, but abnormal and unequal ones,” one North Korean state media article asserted on Wednesday.
The Pyongyang Times similarly published a piece claiming that South Korea was riddled with American biological experiment laboratories currently creating ”
bacteriological weapons that are more terrible than COVID-19 [the Chinese coronavirus].” It cited the same alleged South Korean expert.
The attacks come at a bizarre time given praise for the United States from Kim Yo-jong, the dictator’s sister. In March, the younger Kim published a letter through the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) acknowledging that President Donald Trump had offered North Korea humanitarian aid and that doing so was “a good example showing the special and firm personal relations” between Trump and Kim’s tyrant brother. Kim Yo-jong said Trump specifically “expressed his intent to render cooperation in the anti-epidemic work, saying that he was impressed by the efforts made by the Chairman [Kim Jong-un] to defend his people from the serious threat of the epidemic.”