COVID19 & North Korea: What Do We Know?

As a Liberty in North Korea sponsor, I was invited to take part in an online conference discussing these matters and more.

Speakers included:

Conference Host: Sokeel Park, director of Research and Strategy and overseas LiNK's operations in South Korea.

Jeongmin Kim: NKNews correspondent.

Robert Lauler: Daily NK's English Page Manager



North Korea has claimed no cases of the virus. How accurate is this report?


Robert: Since January, quick measurements have been made; yet, they do host one of the world's worst health care systems. There is restricted mobility across cities and borders. Based off sources within the country, there have been a map of 23 deaths but we cannot confirm that these were virus related. People are still battling food shortages to this day.

Jeongmin: There are only reports on quarantine measures such as house arrests and suspended tourism. Any cargo that does arrive is kept up to 10 days before downloading. The state media seems to be concerned about the issue by quoting WHO to wear masks and wash their hands. Masks are mandatory if one uses the bus system.


What else do we know?

Robert: The North Korea medias stresses hygiene and reports daily on South Korea's recent outbreak. School vacation has been extended until April 15, which is Kim ll Sung's birthday. That's never happened before and typically a day of celebration so they are creating a bit of false hope. Medical students and social organizers are patrolling the citizens residing on the border. Citizens have also been arrested for texting about the virus. They want to block information free flowing in and out of the state.

Jeongmin: There has been lots of energy poured into medical propaganda. The international news section in their papers are usually negative but now it's mostly about the virus. They are showing an image to care about their citizens. As of 3/19, 800 of the quarantined have been released, some are foreigners or have had contact with the outside world. The National Emergency Committee boasted that there are zero cases despite this. It's a matter of national survival to safe guard the country as propaganda. North Korea claims that it is producing soaps and masks and sending text updates. Yet the photos and news given are inconsistent. Despite the curve flatting here (in South Korea), North Korea chooses to report on the South's negative circumstances, causing some sense of panic. Yet North Korean citizens are unaware of their own situations.

How are you able to get this information in real time?

Jeongmin: We have diplomatic sources on the inside; yet we have to think about their safety as well. Reports are based on open source information, monitoring various state media, and monitoring North Koreans abroad. I'll receive little pieces at a time to put together. We also note and admit the patterns of NK state media to avoid cherry-picking.

[Cherry-picking is the action or practice of choosing only the most beneficial or profitable items and opportunities.]

Robert: That's a fair question. Daily NK works with Unified Media Groups and a NK radio station. We provide open access information and radio content on a daily basis to North Korea. We are funded by grants. Despite the information blockade, we track their economy. Our sources provide us with more insight on NK state policies and how well they are put into place. We've spent a lot of our time training our staff and we've noticed that their reports are accurate because it's later confirmed by North Korea. We do send text messages and haven't had any issues so far, yet it's always in the back of our minds. Talking with a South Korean news agency can equal an extreme punishment.

Why would North Korea hold information on this issue compared to posting about natural disasters, a more frequent report?

Robert: They did mention a global outbreak but they aren't transparent within the country. They consistently deal with damage to agriculture but don't discuss it because it's a long term problem. Long term problems (like viruses) aren't ones they are willing to focus on.

Has there been any international assistance?

Jeongmin: The UN and UNICEF and Russia sent a few but it's unclear if the cargo have made it and there are reports that some are stuck in China. Neither country feel secure about opening the border, at least we presume.

How is this affecting Jangmadang, the black market?

Robert: The operations are starting to stir a little since January; yet, China refuses to open trade and North Koreans are forced to smuggle. The market is plummeting since the hot items are no longer electronics as much as before. It's more about food and the prices have jumped. Despite what they are reporting, it has made a huge impact on the economy itself. Fisheries, coal and fuel exports have been hit as well. Traditionally North Korea points blames on international sanctions but it's not fully clear.

Are the North Korean government killing infected people?

Jeongmin: There's evidence in the state media but they are strict about this issue despite "zero" cases. North Korea is prone to take extreme measures that aren't known to the rest of the world.

Can you share anything about the virus in the detention facilities?

Robert: There are currently two reports. Most recently was the deaths of 11 people in a Northern province. They suffered from fevers and respiratory issues but these are people working in extreme environments from the start. The prisons have tried to downplay these issues in general. There is a potential for an outbreak but it's difficult to confirm. We can imagine it rationally but we just don't have the level of confirmation that we like to.

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