The World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday defended North Korea’s highly improbable claim of having absolutely zero confirmed cases of coronavirus infection despite a highly porous border with China and the vastly more advanced southern half of the peninsula spending the past month fighting a massive outbreak.
Queried about North Korea’s claims by the Reuters news agency, WHO representative Dr. Edwin Salvador gave assurances the reclusive and brutal Communist regime is delivering “weekly updates” on the small group of people it admits to keeping in cautionary quarantine:
“As of 2 April, 709 people – 11 foreigners and 698 nationals – have been tested for COVID-19. There is no report of a COVID-19 case. There are 509 people in quarantine – two foreigners and 507 nationals,” Dr. Edwin Salvador, the WHO Representative to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), said in an email reply.
“Since 31 December, 24,842 people have been released from quarantine, which includes 380 foreigners,” he said.
The WHO has been informed that North Korea received primers and probes for use with PCR diagnostic tests from its ally China in January, he added. The WHO has sent supplies of protective equipment.
[…] The Geneva-based WHO said in February that North Korea had reported checking nearly 7,300 travelers over a six-week period to Feb. 9. The health ministry said 141 travelers with fevers had tested negative for the novel coronavirus, it said.
Reuters noted that U.N. human rights experts want the international sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program lifted “to ensure that food supplies reach hungry populations during the pandemic.” It is unclear why the experts would think this necessary, since WHO officially believes North Korea’s insistence that there is no pandemic.
“We are on lockdown. … We are very cautious about the spread of this virus. I understand we have no cases, zero cases,” a North Korean diplomat in Geneva stated.
On the less delirious side of the observational spectrum, Reuters quoted U.S. military commanders who said the vast North Korean military appears to have been locked down for the past month and only recently resumed training exercises, suggesting a good deal more than zero coronavirus cases were diagnosed.
Daily NK, a North Korea-focused news organization based in South Korea, in March reported hundreds of soldiers dying from a “respiratory ailment” because they had “weak immune systems.” Daily NK’s sources said the true number of soldiers who died from these random fevers was so high that the bodies could not be cremated fast enough to conceal them.
Radio Free Asia (RFA) quoted analysts who said North Korea’s limited testing resources were most likely focused entirely on protecting the capital of Pyongyang, where dictator Kim Jong-un and his top officials reside:
In impoverished North Korea, only the rich and well connected are allowed to live in the capital, Pyongyang. When disaster strikes, the national response effort is usually directed at protecting the capital, leaving those in the provinces to fend for themselves.
Choi Jeong-hoon, a graduate of North Korea’s Chongjin Medical College who is now a professor at Korea University in Seoul, told RFA’s Korean Service that North Korea was handling the coronavirus crisis the same way.
“It’s not that they can’t afford to pay attention [to the provinces], they simply don’t care,” said Choi.
“They don’t give [protective equipment they received from outside the country] to the provinces. Only Pyongyang has it, and since Pyongyang doesn’t have enough, they can’t afford to care for the [people] in the provincial areas,” Choi added.
Jiro Ishimaru, head of the Japan-based media outlet specializing in North Korea, Asia Press, told RFA March 23 that according to the outlet’s sources, coronavirus testing is not being conducted in areas close to the Sino-Korean border.
This would suggest North Korea’s strategy for achieving zero confirmed coronavirus cases is largely based on not testing anyone, so that no cases are ever confirmed. Death is common in the impoverished rural areas of North Korea, so a pandemic running wild would not draw undue attention.
Deutsche Welle (DW) noted on Tuesday that North Korea’s cities, at least, did take some dramatic measures to control the pandemic, including a ban on entering or leaving the country, suspension of air and railroad traffic, schools closing, and a mandatory 30-day quarantine for all foreigners, including diplomatic personnel.
Jean H. Lee, an American journalist with experience in North Korea, told DW the international travel ban helped the Kim regime conceal any coronavirus outbreaks that might have occurred, since “there are very few foreigners on the ground at the moment to provide a clear view of what’s happening, and the few who are there have been kept in quarantine.”
Lee said she found Pyongyang’s claim of zero infections “hard to believe.”
North Korea is now one of only five countries in the world claiming zero coronavirus infections. The other four are Lesotho, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Yemen.