North Korean police have issued a decree warning of harsh penalties for smugglers, potentially including execution, in a bid to keep the Chinese coronavirus at bay.
The order was criticized by North Koreans who noted that smuggling and the black market are vital to survival under the Communist regime in Pyongyang.
North Korea has presented one of the nightmare scenarios for epidemiologists ever since the Wuhan virus began spreading in December, given its malnourished population, poor health care, and paranoid rulers.
North Korean state media insists there are zero cases of coronavirus infection in their country. South Korean media claims there are coronavirus infections and fatalities in North Korea, but the regime is concealing them.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said there are “no indications” of an outbreak in North Korea, but it remains concerned about the danger and will continue supplying diagnostic equipment, protective gear, and other supplies. WHO described the North Korean government as “very anxious to make preparations” and eager to receive “technical and operational assistance to help them get ready.”
WHO credited North Korea’s rigorous testing and isolation procedures for travelers with keeping the coronavirus out of the country. As Reuters put it, North Korea was “already one of the world’s most closed-off countries” before it “topped flights and train services with its neighbors, established month-long mandatory quarantines, suspended international tourism and imposed a near-complete lockdown on cross-border travel.”
North Korean police took that lockdown to the next level this month by warning smugglers who violate the border quarantine that they will be severely punished and possibly even executed by firing squad for treason. The edict was spread across the country in a series of community meetings.
“Sources in the country say that residents think that the decree is absurd because smuggling is important to the livelihoods of many living in areas near the Sino-Korean border,” Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on Tuesday.
South Korean media reported last week that a North Korean trade official was executed for violating quarantine laws to use a public bath, so there is good reason to believe the threats of execution for smugglers are serious.
In addition to complaining about the damage to their livelihoods inflicted by shutting down the black market, North Koreans living near the Chinese border told RFA they see the threats of treason charges and execution as a sign the coronavirus is already spreading in North Korea, but the government is not willing to admit it. These nervous skeptics noted the police decree is much harsher than any measures taken during the SARS epidemic of 2003 or deadly outbreaks of diseases such as cholera. To this day, the North Korean regime officially claims it never experienced a single case of SARS, although inside sources say the disease did spread there and inflicted a number of fatalities.
As for South Korea, it reported 20 new cases of coronavirus infection on Tuesday, bringing its total to 51. At least 15 of the new infections are believed to be people who attended church services with a woman known to be infected, although how she contracted the virus has not yet been determined. The church in question has been temporarily shut down and its attendees encouraged to seek coronavirus screening immediately.