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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photo: Reuters

Is North Korea hiding coronavirus quarantine camps on China border?

  • Source claims internees are being left to starve in camps, while activist says bodies were incinerated after a suspected case involving a cross-border trader
  • But a scholar says Pyongyang’s claim to be completely free of the disease is ‘plausible’
From the beginning of the pandemic, North Korea has claimed to be among a handful of countries without a single case of Covid-19.

Almost a year into the global emergency, a growing body of unverified reports and testimony from inside the notoriously secretive country is fuelling doubt about the North’s claimed clean bill of health.

The steady trickle of information – much of it based on second or third-hand recounting of claims by anonymous sources inside North Korea – raises the possibility of a humanitarian disaster in a country with poor medical care and widespread chronic malnourishment.

North Korea insists it has no Covid cases, thanks to shutting borders, containment

Tim Peters, a Christian activist who runs Seoul-based non-profit Helping Hands Korea, said sources in the North had reported the establishment of “quarantine camps” in cities near the Chinese border where medical neglect and starvation were common.

“One of the more alarming pieces of information that has come our way is that the DPRK government is providing absolutely minimal or no food or medicine to those who are interred there,” said Peters, using the acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “So, it’s up to the families of the quarantined citizens to come to the edge of the camps and bring food to keep quarantined relatives alive along with whatever health-related aids that they can muster, whether it be purchased medicines sold in the jangmadang markets, or even herbal home remedies gathered from mountainsides. My sources indicate many in these camps have already died, not only from the pandemic but also from starvation and related causes.”


North Korea puts border city under lockdown after nation’s ‘first’ suspected Covid-19 case

North Korea puts border city under lockdown after nation’s ‘first’ suspected Covid-19 case

Peters, whose NGO delivers medical and other supplies to the North, said the reported neglect matched the testimony of survivors of the country’s prison camps, where “providing an absolutely minimum amount of food” is routine and inmates often succumb to starvation without the support of their families.

“In short, my sense is that the situation pertaining to Covid-19 inside North Korea is gravely serious,” he said.

David Lee, a pastor who works with North Korean defectors in Seoul, said refugees who kept in contact with relatives still in the country had reported cases of people with symptoms “being forced into isolation, or being boarded up in their homes without food or other support and left to die”.

Lee said North Korean authorities had little means to track the spread of the virus known inside the country as the “ghost disease”.

“They don’t have proper testing kits,” he said.

Coronavirus: how North Korean factories could benefit as world goes into lockdown

Speaking on condition of anonymity, another South Korea-based human rights activist said he had learned authorities recently incinerated a number of bodies after a suspected Covid-19 case involving a trader who did business with China under the radar.

“The central inspection authorities came from Pyongyang and burned all the bodies,” said the activist, who said he obtained his information from a dissident broadcaster in the North. “The residents are very anxious.”

The South China Morning Post could not independently confirm the information it received about the pandemic situation in the country.

Pedestrians wear protective face masks in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo: Reuters

Obtaining accurate information from inside North Korea is notoriously challenging due to the ruling Kim family’s stranglehold on information and a media that uniformly follows the official government line. Foreign media reports about the country’s internal developments based on defector testimony or unnamed internal sources have proved to be exaggerated or false in the past.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has repeatedly hailed his country’s success in tackling the pandemic, last month telling a major military parade in Pyongyang that he was grateful no one in the country had contracted the virus.
Last month, the World Health Organization told specialist news site NK News that nearly 3,400 North Koreans had been tested for Covid-19 as of mid-September – a tiny fraction of the population of around 25 million people – with all results coming back negative.

The North has effectively sealed its borders since January, and earlier in the year temporarily closed schools and placed thousands of citizens in isolation. In July, authorities reported a suspected coronavirus case in Kaesong, prompting Kim to place the city near the South Korean border under total lockdown. WHO officials later said testing revealed the suspected case to be inconclusive.

In September, North Korean soldiers shot dead an official with South Korea’s maritime agency as he attempted to cross the sea border in line with a reported “shoot-to-kill” policy aimed at keeping the virus out.

Seoul condemns North Korean military’s shooting of official as ‘act of atrocity’

South Korean officials accused the North of setting fire to the official’s body at sea, although Pyongyang said it only burned floating debris he had been in contact with.

Analysts and foreign governments including the United States and Japan have long expressed doubt about the North’s official case count given its extensive trade with China, its lack of testing capacity and the highly reclusive and paranoid nature of the Kim regime.

Pyongyang did not report any cases of Ebola, Sars or Mers during recent past outbreaks across the region, and in the 1990s hid from the international community the extent of food shortages that are believed to have killed between 240,000 and 3.5 million people.


North Korea’s Kim Jong-un apologises after South Korean defector reportedly shot dead and cremated

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un apologises after South Korean defector reportedly shot dead and cremated

Only a handful of countries, most of them remote Pacific Island nations, have reported no cases of Covid-19, which has topped 45 million confirmed infections worldwide.

Kee Park, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School who has made numerous humanitarian trips to North Korea, said he nonetheless found it “plausible” that the North could have kept the virus out.

“As you know the country has essentially locked itself shut very early in January and the bordering Chinese provinces do not have many cases,” said Park. “We can also see the limited relaxation of domestic movement and school openings as a proxy for their level of confidence in their ability to keep the virus out.”

But Park said the country could be devastated in the event of a major outbreak, a risk exacerbated by its international isolation. UN sanctions aimed at North’s nuclear and missile programmes prevent the importation of certain equipment such as ambulances, sterilisers and X-ray machines without special permission, although officials have granted waivers to aid groups on a case-by-case basis since the start of the pandemic.

Young South Koreans turn on China as Hong Kong, coronavirus weigh on minds

“Should the virus enter, some estimates put the death toll at 150,000 as a worst-case scenario,” Park said. “One thing people may not realise is the human cost of continued isolation, which includes access to external humanitarian assistance. The isolation is sure to increase poverty, degrade health systems and ability to access care in a timely manner and we are estimating as many as 90,000 people may die annually as the result of their ongoing isolation. What is needed urgently is a way to reopen the country to limited trade and assistance in a safe way.”
The North could also be particularly vulnerable due to chronic hunger among the population. Two in five North Koreans are undernourished, with more than 70 per cent of citizens dependent on food aid, according to estimates by the United Nations.

“Prevailing and chronic malnutrition inside North Korea automatically and severely weakens the immune system of a huge swathe of the DPRK population,” said Peters, the Seoul-based activist. “In short, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.”