North Korea May Declare COVID-19 Victory

SEOUL – It is only a month since North Korea admitted a COVID-19 outbreak after more than two years of staunchly denied all cases. But perhaps it is already preparing to announce victory.

According to state media, North Korea has avoided the mass deaths many expected in a nation with one of the world’s worst health systems, little or no access to vaccines and what outsiders see as a long history of ignoring the suffering of its people.

Daily updates from official media make it seem inevitable that the nation will completely defeat a virus that has killed more than 6 million people around the world. Cases are falling, according to the official tally, and although 18% of the nation of 26 million people have reportedly had symptoms that outsiders strongly suspect are from COVID-19, fewer than 100 have died.

The South Korean government, as well as some experts, believe that North Korea may soon declare that it has defeated the virus, which of course has to do with leader Kim Jong Un’s strong and shrewd leadership.


However, a victory lap is not a foregone conclusion. According to some experts, this would deprive Kim of a useful tool to scrutinize the public and potentially expose the government to humiliation if the cases continue.

“There are two sides to such a statement,” said Moon Seong Mook, an analyst at the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy. “When North Korea says COVID-19 is gone, it can emphasize that Kim Jong Un is a great leader who has overcome the pandemic. But in doing so, it cannot maintain the powerful restrictions it uses to control its people in the name of containing COVID-19.”

Outsiders suspect Kim is using the outbreak to bolster internal unity at a time when many of his people are tired of the two-and-a-half years of draconian restrictions that have impacted their livelihoods.

However North Korea goes with its description of the pandemic, many signs, at least in public statements, point to a stunning record of success in dealing with a virus that has baffled the world’s wealthiest countries.


In the early stages of the outbreak, Kim described a “major upheaval” as daily cases of fever — North Korea rarely calls them COVID-19, presumably because there are no testing kits — reached about 400,000. Now, however, the leader suggests the outbreak has peaked, with his health officials maintaining a widely disputed 0.002% death rate, the lowest in the world.

The question that many outside experts wrestle with is: What is the real plight of North Korea, which has banned almost all outside journalists, aid workers and diplomats since the beginning of 2020?

It is widely believed that North Korea is manipulating its true death toll to avert harm from Kim. It may also have exaggerated the number of previous fever cases to increase vigilance against the virus and garner stronger public support for the authorities’ anti-virus controls. North Korea recently reported about 17,000 to 30,000 new cases of fever every day, for a total of 4.7 million. It is said – to widespread outward disbelief – that only 73 died.


Whatever the real situation, outside surveillance groups say they have seen no sign of anything catastrophic in North Korea.

“If a large number of people had died, there would have been some evidence, but there wasn’t,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University in South Korea. For example, during a major famine in the 1990s, rumors of widespread deaths and people abandoning their bodies spread outside the country, in China and South Korea.

Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector in Seoul who runs a company that analyzes the north’s economy, said three of her contacts in the North Korean city of Hyesan told her over the phone that most of her family members are suspected of having COVID-19 would have suffered symptoms. But she said they told her none of her relatives, neighbors and acquaintances had died from COVID-19, despite hearing rumors of such deaths in other cities.


“During a previous phone call, one of my sources cried a little while saying she was concerned that some bad things might be happening in her family (because of COVID-19). But now she and others have become stable and sometimes laugh when we talk on the phone,” Kang said.

During a recent ruling party meeting, Kim said the country’s fight against the pandemic has passed the stage of an “unexpected serious crisis.” State media have urged the public to rally behind Kim more resolutely to end the pandemic completely.

Cho Joonghoon, a spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which oversees ties with North Korea, told reporters last week that the North may announce that its COVID-19 crisis has been resolved this month.

Nam, the South Korean professor, said the outbreak appears to have subsided in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, but is likely to continue in rural areas, where some people with symptoms are venturing outdoors because they depend on market activities for a living and have no access to public rations.


“I think North Korea will declare victory over the pandemic a little later. It would lose face if it announced victory too early and new patients showed up afterwards,” Nam said.

Kang, the defector, said North Korean residents of Hyesan are complying with government orders to fight the pandemic and few fever patients go outside during the quarantine period.

As North Korea believes the pandemic, UN sanctions and other economic hardships will continue, there’s little chance it will lift major restrictions any time soon, said Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far East Studies in Seoul.

“The United States and other countries with advanced healthcare and medical systems have not declared an end to COVID-19. So North Korea will have a much harder time as well,” Lim said.

Global vaccine alliance GAVI said earlier this month it understood North Korea had accepted an offer of vaccines from China. But North Korea has ignored offers of medical assistance from South Korea and the US.


Despite the COVID-19 outbreak, North Korea has continued to fire test missiles this year. But it has yet to conduct a widely anticipated nuclear test, possibly because of concerns about a potential backlash from people still struggling with the virus.

North Korea could officially declare victory over the virus if its daily fever cases and the pandemic situation in neighboring China ease significantly, said Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website that focuses on health issues in North Korea.

But he said such a declaration doesn’t mean much because North Korea likely only acknowledged the outbreak last month, having determined it was manageable.

“According to North Korea, it conquers everything. It does not acknowledge things that it cannot overcome. It always wins outright, whether it faces military, economic or pandemic difficulties,” Ahn said.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. North Korea May Declare COVID-19 Victory

Sarah Y. Kim

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