First Report Surfaces of North Korean City Under Coronavirus Lockdown

In this undated file photo provided on Sunday, May 24, 2020, by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a meeting of the Seventh Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party of Korea in North Korea. Kim suspended his military's plans to take unspecified retaliatory …
Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

North Korean officials shut down the city of Chongjin, the third-largest in the country, over a growing Chinese coronavirus outbreak there, Radio Free Asia (RFA) revealed on Wednesday.

North Korea’s communist regime has insisted for months that it has not documented any Chinese coronavirus cases in the country. It shut its borders entirely in late January and recently extended the policy into 2021. Rumors flew in April that dictator Kim Jong-un may have tested positive for the coronavirus – and that it may have killed him – but Kim later made a public appearance seeming healthy and the rumors subsided.

North Korea borders the country where the virus originated, China, and specifically its hard-hit Heilongjiang province. It also borders Russia and South Korea, which have experienced intense coronavirus outbreaks. As North Korea is a secretive communist nation where all non-state media is illegal, reports from within the country are difficult to verify, sometimes prompting conflicting reports in neighboring states such as China and South Korea.

Through its songbun caste system, Pyongyang strictly controls the mobility of North Korean citizens. Only those considered most loyal to communist dictator Kim Jong-un can leave the country, but those of low caste, or songbun, are prohibited from leaving their villages or visiting more prosperous areas of the country. Those in-between must request travel permits to leave their provinces.

While sources within North Korea have told RFA in the past that officials inside the country have admitted to a growing coronavirus problem, the report published Wednesday is the first of an official city-wide lockdown nationwide.

“Since the beginning of this month, coronavirus is again spreading in and around Chongjin, causing an emergency at the provincial quarantine center,” an unnamed local resident told the outlet. “The provincial quarantine center and law enforcement authorities quickly imposed a ban on the movement of residents, saying it is to prevent the spread of infection.”

Chongjin is one of the country’s few industrial centers, boasting a population of 625,000 people and large factories. The shutdown followed alleged positive diagnoses of workers at two factories that the RFA source called “supersized facilities with tens of thousands of employees. The companies are large enough to run hospitals on their own, but they are unable to provide proper treatment other than merely isolating the patients.”

Multiple reports published since January indicate that the total border shutdown has had a devastating effect on the already decimated North Korean economy, languishing after three years of strict international sanctions following its last illegal nuclear test. Economic woes reportedly joined panic about the virus in March, as reports claimed that the North Korean military had lost over 100 soldiers to the virus, soldiers being the most exposed due to their positions on the country’s border. A month later, RFA reported that sources within the country had received word of an internal coronavirus outbreak from local officials, something Pyongyang never publicly admitted to.

While many observers around the globe expressed skepticism at North Korea’s claim to being one of the world’s few countries without a single coronavirus case, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), which is not allowed to operate in the country, defended Pyongyang in April, claiming it had no information about cases there.

At press time, the latest news in North Korean state media about the coronavirus is a conspiracy theory that the United States is “scheming to deploy germ warfare units” against North Korea, a sign that Pyongyang may soon admit to an outbreak, but blame America for it. The virus originated in Wuhan, China, despite Chinese Communist Party objections to that fact, and no evidence exists of it being present outside Chinese border before the first diagnosis of a Chinese coronavirus case.

North Korea’s erratic foreign policy behavior in the past two weeks has led some to believe that the coronavirus pandemic, in one form or another, is causing significant harm to the country.

Last week, North Korean state media began to publish a barrage of insults against South Korea, and particularly the leftist government of President Moon Jae-in, for the practice of South Korean human rights advocates sending leaflets with outside news into North Korea using balloons. North Korean defectors in the South and allied human rights activists have been engaging in leaflet drops for years, prompting many to wonder why Pyongyang had suddenly become so incensed by the practice. Among the threats from the North were a supposed plan for a military attack against the “disgusting human scum” sending news into the North and personal insults against Moon from Kim Jong-un’s sister, senior regime official Kim Yo-jong. Following the propaganda campaign, North Korea bombed the joint liaison office it had been using to communicate with the South for two years.

The South responded by criminalizing the distribution of leaflets, which did nothing to stop leaflet campaigns from sending real news into the communist country. Moon’s Unification Minister, defeated, resigned.

Then, abruptly, North Korean state media revealed on Wednesday that Kim Jong-un had personally stepped in to “suspend” plans for a military invasion of South Korea, and North Korean officials deleted over a dozen articles published in the last two weeks insulting Seoul.

In a column this week, Asia Times speculated that the frenzied counter-diplomacy out of Pyongyang may be a sign that its economy has fully collapsed and it is desperately seeking a way to bully South Korea into helping North Korea financially.

“I think they want the South Korean government to put into place legislation that would open up funding streams,” an unnamed “U.S. official” reportedly told the Asia Times.

RFA noted as recently as Tuesday that the little economic aid that North Korea appears to be getting is in the form of shipments of grain from China. While international sanctions do not ban humanitarian aid, they do ban some travel by North Korean ships to ports where they might receive food, making Chinese shipments more complicated.

“The coronavirus lockdown followed drought and poor harvests in the impoverished country, whose trade options are limited by international sanctions aimed at depriving Pyongyang of cash for its nuclear and missile programs,” RFA reported.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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