North Korea reaffirmed its highly questioned claim Tuesday that it has not identified a single confirmed case of Chinese coronavirus within its borders in a report to the World Health Organization (W.H.O.).
North Korea has repeatedly asserted that it has succeeded in keeping all Chinese coronavirus cases out of the country, despite sharing borders with severely affected countries like South Korea and Russia and with the country where the virus originated, China. North Korea’s border along the Yalu River with China is especially porous and typically attracts significant economic activity, including some that has prompted accusations of China violating international sanctions on its totalitarian neighbor. Yet Pyongyang insists it has prevented all coronavirus cases from entering the country.
While claiming no national exposure to the virus, dictator Kim Jong-un has made several public remarks that belie the claim, including describing North Korea as being in a “worst-ever” situation in its history and apologizing, amid tears, for the government’s poor performance throughout 2020. Kim also ordered the rapid construction of a new health facility, the Pyongyang General Hospital, last week, which has yet to be completed amid rumors that the regime ran out of construction materials.
The South Korean news service Yonhap noted that North Korea updated the W.H.O. on its official coronavirus situation as of April 29, claiming to test 751 people in the last week of April and finding no positive cases. Pyongyang claims it has conducted 26,000 tests since the pandemic began.
North Korea’s most recent claim to having no coronavirus cases follows a reported request to the W.H.O. for vaccines against the pathogen — raising questions as to why they would be necessary in a country with no cases — and the debut of a barrage of anti-epidemic propaganda meant to encourage citizens to take strict measures to prevent the spread of a virus allegedly not present in their country.
Radio Free Asia (RFA), citing anonymous sources within North Korea, reported last week that Pyongyang is urging health workers and others to treat the pandemic as a “war” in which total defeat of the threat is necessary. Emergency communist propaganda “materials” reportedly told health workers that, “as the first line of defense in our war on the virus, they are fighters who should play a leading role.”
“The materials also emphasize that healthcare workers should take pride in their positions, as it is an important opportunity to verify their loyalty to the party, the revolution, and their love for the people through the emergency quarantine projects in their regions,” an anonymous source told the American outlet. Others noted that the government distributed similar materials to those in leadership positions in factories, farms, and building complexes, among other locations.
Those speaking to RFA said that many citizens in the country have noted an increase in the number of deaths attributed to unspecified respiratory disease, adding to the suspicion that Pyongyang has not been forthcoming about the situation.
“The reality is that residents are just not able to speak about it openly. Many question why there are lots of people who die from a high fever and cold symptoms with unknown causes are hastily cremated without showing their bodies to their families,” one of the anonymous sources said.
Another noted, however, that other citizens believe the claim that coronavirus has not affected the country because the tenor of the propaganda about the pandemic makes the struggle seem more like a test of “loyalty” — and impending purge of potential dissidents — and not an apolitical attempt to control a health emergency.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), an official communist regime media outlet, urged citizens on Sunday to “strictly observe anti-epidemic rules and concentrate efforts on keeping the masses on high alert, while regarding the anti-epidemic work as the most important task of this year.”
“All the institutions, enterprises, factories and farms across the country put efforts into enhancing the responsibility and role of their hygienic information workers so that disinfection and sewage disposal are properly done as specified in the anti-epidemic rules,” KCNA relayed. “Posters are displayed in many places to promote the anti-epidemic campaign along with the work for creating a hygienic and cultural environment.”
On Tuesday, KCNA boasted of its alleged healthcare prowess and the “vitality of the socialist public health system through its good medical service” in an announcement claiming the recent completion of the construction of a hospital in Samjiyon City.
“For about six months since its inauguration, its medical workers have provided many patients with sincere medical treatment, thus gaining in popularity,” the report read. They have succeeded in more than 200 big and small operations, achieving successes in treatment of cases through regular operation of the tele-medical service system.”
The victorious tenor of the report contrasted significantly with Kim Jong-un’s repeated references to government “shortcomings” and laments that his Worker’s Party had failed to meet the needs of the people in the past year. In October, Kim appeared on national television sobbing, telling his audience, “our people have placed trust, as high as sky and as deep as sea, on me, but I have failed to always live up to it satisfactorily. I am really sorry for that.”
In April, Kim described the current moment as a “worst-ever situation” in the history of North Korea, without elaborating, and ordered his underlines to advance “the socialist cause” and repair their “shortcomings.”