South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo on Friday quoted sources in North Korea who said the secretive Communist dictatorship is dealing with hundreds of thousands of coronavirus infections and over 500 fatalities, despite the regime’s official claims that it has never experienced a single infection.
According to Chosun Ilbo’s sources, Pyongyang is “having a tough time containing the epidemic,” and even dictator Kim Jong-un admitted to his Politburo in a closed meeting last week that the coronavirus has become a “fatal crisis.”
“The number of coronavirus fatalities in North Korea surpassed 500 late last month. The number of confirmed cases stands at only around 40 while another 100 are suspected, but 390,000 people have been isolated, so the number of fatalities is rising sharply,” one source said. Another charged that coronavirus deaths have been concealed by writing them up as cases of acute pneumonia.
According to Chosun Ilbo’s report, the strain of hiding the coronavirus disaster explains most of North Korea’s weird and belligerent behavior over the past few months, some of which – like Kim’s sister Kim Yo-jong all but declaring war on South Korea in June, or North Korea suddenly blowing up its liaison office in Kaesong – was intended to distract the international community from the growing crisis.
The report said school re-openings were delayed because “many schools failed to pass quarantine tests,” and now the growing epidemic prompted the North Korean government to move the start of the school holiday season ahead by a month so they could be closed again. The intermittently sealed North Korean border with China is closed again, at least until stronger quarantine measures can be put in place. North Korean officials refused a request from foreign diplomats for a chartered flight out of the country, forcing them to travel overland instead.
The official line from North Korea remains that it is a medical miracle, the envy of the modern world, the only country of any size to encounter not a single case of coronavirus infection, even though it borders on China.
Kim Jong-un hailed his country as a “shining success” in a Politburo meeting just last week, claiming that under “the far-sighted leadership of the Party Central Committee,” North Korea has “prevented the inroad of the malignant virus and maintained a stable situation.”
Two former North Korean medical professionals told Amnesty International last week that, contrary to Kim’s boasts, North Koreans are so accustomed to being ravaged by disease outbreaks that they have developed “mental immunity” against the sort of panic that gripped most other countries when China’s deadly coronavirus came calling. For Kim’s subjects, the coronavirus was only the latest pandemic, and his repressive security apparatus leaves them terrified to hint at the true number of infections and deaths when they communicate with the outside world, so they just rolled up their sleeves and got busy dying.
The New York Times noted last week that the economic damage to North Korea from the coronavirus is so obvious and enormous that the regime’s propaganda campaign to conceal the epidemic is even more absurd than most of Pyongyang’s media emanations.
The Times pointed to some signs of “growing stress on the North’s economy, especially its foreign currency reserves,” including the first public bond issue in 17 years – with buyers very strongly encouraged to use much-needed foreign currency – crackdowns on black-market currency trades, and increasingly desperate attempts to secure economic relief from China.