COVID in North Korea: How Kim Jong-un lost control of his strategy against the virus


For more than two years, North Korea managed to prevent the arrival of covid-19, according to its records.

It did so by taking its isolation to the extreme: since January 2020 it has not allowed anyone to enter the country – not even North Koreans – and has reinforced the fences and border posts, where soldiers they have orders to shoot to everyone who comes near.

It also stores and disinfects all products imported from China for weeks to ensure that they do not have even the slightest trace of the virus.

Leader Kim Jong-Un went so far as to confine the population in October 2020 to prevent the haze coming fromthe gobi desert about 2,000 kilometers spread the coronavirus.

Without manufacturing vaccines or accepting offers from other countries to immunize its population, Pyongyang bet everything on its “zero covid” policy.


But, more than two years later, when much of the world already considers the pandemic over, in north korea everything has fallen apart with the spread of the omicron variant.

The government has recognized one and a half million cases of “fever” and 56 deathsbut the true extent of the epidemic is unknown in a country with serious shortages of medical supplies, poor detection and tracing capacity, and where the government has absolute control of information.

Proof of the seriousness of the situation is that Kim announced that the country is going through “the greatest convulsion since its founding” in 1948, has decreed massive quarantines and has even mobilized the army to face the wave of cases.

But how has covid-19 been able to enter and spread in what many consider the most hermetic country in the world?

From China, but… how?

Isolation due to the pandemic further aggravated the already endemic shortage in North Korea, a country of some 25 million inhabitants unable to provide for itself due to its very limited resources for agricultural and industrial production.

“North Korea opened the border city of Sinuiju on the Yalu River in January and materials and people began to enter from China, since Pyongyang had requested help due to the serious economic situation after two years of closure”, Professor Nam Sung-wook from the University of Korea in Seoul tells BBC Mundo.

This limited opening could, according to this expert in intelligence and relations between North Korea and China, have facilitated a first entry of the virus into the country.

For his part, the EFE Agency correspondent in Seoul, Andrés Sánchez Braun, cites two other possibilities in his analysis.

The first is that Some smuggler will bring the virus to North Koreawhose 1,416 km border with China was heavily frequented -until the pandemic- by merchants crossing the Yalu River.

A person crosses the Yalu River

Getty Images
In some parts of the border between North Korea and China, such as Sinuiju, the Yalu River is very shallow and easy to cross.

The other hypothesis is that it came from “asymptomatic people who have participated in the permitted trade routes with China (railroad and high seas)” somehow circumventing the exhaustive disinfection processes.

The perfect Storm”

For Go Myong-hyun, a researcher at South Korea’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, it wasn’t how the virus entered the country earlier this year that mattered.

That, he assures, was only the first drop of what he calls “a perfect storm”gestated in the following months.

The authorities “summoned large crowds of people in Pyongyang to celebrate the 110th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth [fundador del país, el 15 de abril] and the 90th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean military [el 25 de abril]”.

both celebrations “became mass propagation events” of covid-19, Go sentence.

And, in the expert’s opinion, they explain why Pyongyang is today the epicenter of covid-19 in the country.

The city of some 2.9 million people was the scene of the first major outbreaks reported last week by authorities.

And, after the cases skyrocketed, Kim Jong-un directed the army’s medical corps to the country’s capital to “stabilize the supply of medicines.”

Who is responsible?

North Korean leader pointed both to his cabinet and to those responsible for the public health system “for his irresponsible work attitude and his ability to organize and execute,” the state agency KCNA published on Monday.

Kim criticized the slowness in the distribution of medicines to local pharmacies (which justified mobilizing the army to stabilize the supply) and the deficiencies in the storage of drugs.

These and other shortcomings, according to the North Korean authorities, would have contributed to the uncontrolled spread of the virus.

For the experts consulted by BBC Mundo, these accusations are part of the usual strategy of the North Korean government of look for a “scapegoat” in times of crisis.

“This reflects the North Korean leadership ideology according to which the leader is supposedly infallible and, therefore, he is never blamed for policy failures,” says researcher Go Myong-hyun.

He claims that the North Korean leadership is responsible for the current situation, but “shifts the blame to third parties, which is another indication that the regime’s covid policy is not scientific but ideological.”

“There will be a purge”

“Unlike previous pandemics (SARS, influenza A, etc.), they had two years in advance in which to prepare the population for a transition from quarantine to mass vaccination. But they remained firm in the zero covid policy, which attests to their ideological rigidity, ”says Go.

Professor Nam, for his part, predicts that someone will end up paying the consequences.

“Inevitably there will be a purge of top bureaucrats to appease the anger of the people.

And he maintains that “the blame for this tragedy rests entirely with Kim Jong-un“.

He considers that, in recent months, the leader has contributed with his example to the relaxation in the environment in the face of covid-19 by “attending parades and field visits without a mask, taking photos with a multitude of soldiers and workers.”

Kim Jong-un and the military

Kim met with troops in late April, days after the military’s anniversary parade.

And, more importantly, the leader had the ultimate decision not to accept – for unknown reasons that are currently the subject of debate among experts – the vaccine supply offers from China and the UN’s Covax distribution program, nor to request them. to other countries or produce them autonomously.

So, practically no one is vaccinated in north korea.

This, added to the precarious conditions of health centers, the shortage of medicines and supplies (North Korean deserters told the BBC how serum is administered to patients in beer bottles and needles are reused until they rust), among other factors, is which makes the late and massive spread of covid-19 in the country so dangerous.

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