North Korea will extend its coronavirus quarantine measures through the end of 2020, an anonymous North Korean senior official told Radio Free Asia (RFA) on Tuesday.
The move elicits suspicion about North Korea’s continued insistence that it has documented zero cases of Chinese coronavirus in the country, which the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) corroborated by stating in early April that Pyongyang was in regular contact with the agency. North Korea borders China, the origin country of the coronavirus, as well as Russia and South Korea, two of the world’s countries with some of the most severe domestic outbreaks.
North Korea banned foreigners early this year and instituted emergency measures, including canceling major communist holidays that typically generate crowds of thousands. Dictator Kim Jong-un also ordered the construction of a new hospital in the heart of Pyongyang. Yet the regime insists no one in the country has tested positive for the virus.
“On the 23rd, the Central Party ordered the provincial quarantine command to extend the national emergency quarantine posture through the end of the year,” an anonymous regional North Korean official told RFA. “[They] ordered stronger quarantine measures in response to the prolonged outbreak.”
The report is not the first time RFA finds evidence of regime officials admitting to a severe outbreak, but the first time a North Korean official directly tells the new organization that this is the case. Last week, RFA published a story citing anonymous officials in Ryanggang province stating that they were present at a government lecture where officials admitted to a significant spread of Chinese coronavirus in the country.
“[They] held a lecture session for all the residents titled ‘Let’s all work together on the coronavirus quarantine project to [successfully] implement the Supreme Leader’s policies,’” the source reportedly said. “The speaker at the lecture publicly stated that there were confirmed coronavirus patients among [the people].”
In Tuesday’s story, the government source said that the year-long emergency measures, including shutting down the border with China, are inspiring some panic among residents who fear their only access to a functional economy will be shut down for the long term. Since September 2017 – the last time North Korea tested a nuclear weapon – the country has been under strict global sanctions that leave it with very few avenues towards generating profits. Tourism is one of those, an industry almost completely destroyed on a global scale by the current pandemic. Much of North Korea’s other economic activity occurs along the Yalu River, which North Koreans and Chinese cross regularly to engage in illegal trade.
“As a result [of the extension of quarantine measures], the resumption of border trade and maritime trade, which has been blocked for months, has been postponed without any promise [of reopening],” RFA’s source said.
RFA noted that the W.H.O. reiterated to them remarks that stated North Korea still has zero confirmed coronavirus cases. It also cited several sources fearing for their economic survival as a result of the lockdown, suggesting some opposition within North Korea’s borders.
North Korea’s state publications did not appear to announce the extension of quarantine measures on Wednesday. Instead, Rodong Sinmun, the government newspaper, ran an article attributing the state’s development to “the ideological and spiritual might of the popular masses,” with no mention of economics.
“The proud course covered by the Korean revolution have clearly witnessed the iron truth that when all the people turn out with consciousness and make strenuous efforts, there are no barrier impossible to surmount and no fortresses impossible to break through in the world,” Rodong Sinmun proclaimed. “Since our Party inscribed a hammer, sickle and writing brush on its red flag, it has never been separated from the people even a moment, but steadily pushed ahead with the revolution in reliance on their might.”
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the newswire analog to Rodong Sinmun, also announced on Wednesday the arrival of “an active electric boiler” to the country.
The mystery of the true effect of the coronavirus pandemic in North Korea has also resulted in vivid speculation about the status of dictator Kim Jong-un. Kim did not make a public appearance on the Day of the Sun – North Korea’s most important holiday, which celebrates grandfather Kim Il-sung’s birthday on April 15 – which resulted in a series of rumors that he had died, was in a vegetative state, had a serious heart condition, tested positive for coronavirus, or was otherwise impaired. The government of South Korea has repeatedly insisted that all such rumors are “fake news” and Kim is healthy and safe.
“Our intelligence shows that there are no abnormalities, no unusual movements in North Korea,” Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo reiterated on Wednesday. “As a defense minister, I’ve taken this issue very seriously and checked all the situations, not only military circumstances but others such as the COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] virus.”