North Korea Caught COVID

By Ana Perez, 9th Grade

As one of the most isolated countries in the world, North Korea was relatively safe during the first wave of COVID in 2020, reporting zero cases. Now, the country is facing at least a million cases – an average of one case per 25 people. State media reported their first COVID-related death over the weekend. But North Korea is severely underprepared for a pandemic of this proportion, which has led the nation to ask the international community for aid.

Over the weekend, COVID spread like wildfire inside North Korea. The country has reported that 1.4 million are suffering from influenza-like symptoms, which they are treating as COVID since the country does not have enough testing equipment. The outbreak extended outside Pyongyang, too, as the official KCNA news agency reported that “A fever whose cause couldn’t be identified spread explosively nationwide from late April.” 56 deaths along with one Omicron case have been reported so far. It’s also important to note that the current COVID outbreak in North Korea is even more contagious than the first COVID wave. The situation has been described as an “immediate public health crisis.” But what is even more worrying is just how unprepared North Korea is to face the pandemic.

Firstly, North Korea has no vaccines. Last year, the government rejected international offers to supply AstraZeneca, Russian-made, and Chinese-made vaccines, claiming that the nation was secure enough by closing its borders in January 2020. That means North Korea has no vaccines and little testing equipment, so there’s no way to accurately measure the amount of COVID cases. Instead, public health officials are treating fever-like symptoms as an indicator of COVID cases. Food and medicine for the ill are already in short supply after North Korea pretty much shut out all trade after closing its borders. The little amount that they have is reserved for important political and military officials, such as the Kim Family. In fact, most doctors in North Korea are reserved solely for important officials, leaving the general population to its own devices. The healthcare system in North Korea is incredibly poor, if not atrocious since most North Koreans are unvaccinated, severely malnourished, and with weak immune systems. It’s likely that the COVID-related death toll is even higher. 

But what will be truly deadly is the lockdown. Kim Jong-Un has ordered “maximum emergency” virus controls, including a local lockdown and gathering restrictions. This means that it will be even more difficult to enter supplies into the country and the general population will not have access to the resources they need to survive as food shortages worsen. Some have compared the situation to the Arduous March, which was a North Korean famine that killed almost 3.5 million, or 15% of the population. Due to economic mismanagement and lack of Soviet support, extreme food shortages killed over 15% of the population, who were not even allowed to say the words ‘famine’ or ‘hunger’ as they could be in serious trouble with the authorities. Now, due to mismanagement in the healthcare sector and refusing support from China, Russia, and South Korea, North Korea is facing a disastrous COVID outbreak. Although, some analysts believe that the outbreak will not be deadlier than the Arduous March. On the other hand, some have compared the situation in North Korea to that of the country in the novel World War Z. In the novel, North Korea claimed that they had the situation under control after they pulled out the teeth of the entire population and forced them to live in underground cities. However, the nation became a ghost town overnight and Seoul-based authorities did not know if there were any survivors. Some speculate that the outbreak could lead to most of the North Korean population being wiped out since medical treatment is reserved for important officials, food is extremely hard to obtain, and the healthcare system is abysmal. Others are speculating that the outbreak could lead to a revolution against the government and the Kim family, although this is severely unlikely due to the amount of propaganda in North Korea. Their religion is based on worshiping the Kim Family and those who speak badly about them will be sent to death camps with their entire family – their grandparents, parents, sisters, brothers, children… all of them will be sent there. Most are too scared to rise against the government because they know the consequences.

Despite the relationship between the two, South Korea has offered humanitarian aid, although North Korea is yet to respond. And hours after the COVID announcement, North Korea fired three short-range ballistic missiles about 360km towards the Sea of Japan, according to the South Korean military. Yang Moo-Jin from the University of North Korean studies said that the country might shelve nuclear tests to concern themselves with the outbreak, although they might “divert their fear elsewhere if the situation worsens.” Leif-Eric Easley from Ewha University said that North Korea “may be less interested in nuclear or missile tests when the urgent threat involves coronavirus rather than a foreign military.” He also said that Pyongyang is likely to double down on its lockdowns now that they are entering a “period of uncertainty in managing its domestic challenges and international isolation.” 

The situation in North Korea is truly worrying since the country does not have the means to effectively deal with the pandemic. With virtually no healthcare system for the general population, food shortages, no vaccines, few scientists, and a refusal of international support, North Korea will not have an easy time handling the COVID outbreak – if they are even able to handle it in the first place.



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