Victory Over the Coronavirus in the DPRK: Frequently Asked Questions

On August 10, an all-republican summing-up meeting on emergency anti-epidemic work was held in the capital, Pyongyang, convened by the WPK and the DPRK Cabinet, chaired by Kim Jong-un, who announced a complete victory over COVID-19 and an easing of the “maximum stringent emergency quarantine” level.

The total number of cases was 4.77 million out of a population of 25-26 million, and although the number of people with fever peaked at 390,000 a day on May 15, by the end of the month the number of cases per day was less than a hundred thousand, and by the end of June it was less than 5,000. Since July 29, 2022, the number of new cases became zero.

Kim Jong-un has proclaimed the epidemic to be the most difficult challenge for the country since the Korean war of 1950-53 and a stress test for the administrative system. Foreign “assessors” went even further, comparing the situation to the Arduous March of the 1990s and predicting at least the collapse of the economy and healthcare, if not a regime change. That is why the news that the DPRK won has caused a certain amount of excitement and the author has had to answer questions on this topic more than once, both verbally and in written interviews. The author presents this list of answers to frequently asked questions to the NEO readers.

Has the strategy of “whole country self-isolation” proven right?

Yes, because it gave an opportunity to buy time. As the audience remembers, earlier strains of the virus had less infectiousness but greater lethality. The DPRK chose to err on the side of caution and closed its borders almost immediately, which helped it survive the first waves, and it suffered only the highly contagious but relatively non-lethal “stealth Omicron” coronavirus strain.

In addition, during this period, the techniques that were then applied during the nationwide lockdown were honed. In July 2020, for example, Kaesong, the country’s second most important city, was closed for a fortnight after a defector from the South to the North got strange medical tests results. The coronavirus was not confirmed in the end, but the acquired experience was used wisely.

 How was the statistics collected and is this data trustworthy?

North Korea has a system of so-called “people’s groups,” which is a grassroots form of self-organization and control. Each “people’s group” consists of several families, similar to a neighborhood community. if you describe it in Soviet terms, a head of a people’s group is a hybrid of a house manager and a district police officer. It would therefore not be difficult to collect information promptly and on a daily basis on how many people in a given area have fever. For the same reason the author does not see any serious manipulation of this statistics. The problem is different.

Firstly, the statistics does not cover those who had COVID-19 asymptomatically. This percentage varies from strain to strain, but if one is interested in the pressure on the health care system, asymptomatic patients do not add to it.

Secondly, the KCNA reports were honestly not talking about coronavirus alone, but fever or high fever syndrome. This meant that victims of other fever-causing illnesses were added to these statistics in some number to those who fell ill with the coronavirus. Even more so, the DPRK saw overt messages that there was an outbreak of some other intestinal infection in parallel with the coronavirus epidemic. It is therefore highly probable that there could have been an outbreak of some other disease in the country in parallel with the coronavirus. And that is why the DPRK percentage of lethality was so little, being many times lower that even the least lethal strains of the virus: 0.002% in North Korea versus 0.12% in South Korea. Throughout the entire epidemic, 74 people died, and notably 60 of them died in the first week of the spread of the disease, partly as a result of improper treatment.

It goes without saying that South Korean and Western authors do not believe this number of deaths, claiming that “the authorities are hiding real figures.” This usually comes down to the claim that these authors take the standard lethality rate and calculate an estimated number of deaths, which “has to be” few tens of thousands. Then there go discussions about a shortage of medication, which in theory should result in even more deaths. However, the understanding that the statistics of high fever holders are NOT the same as the statistics of coronavirus patients crushes this thesis and takes death toll issues into the realm of assumptions and modelling, the outcome of which is dangerous to pass off as real-world results.

Is it true that the epidemic took place because the state authorities had not carried out mass vaccination?

Understandably, anti-Pyongyang outreach has tried to frame North Korea’s refusal to accept vaccines as “unwillingness to accept aid from the imperialists and their collaborators,” but it is more complicated than that.

To begin with, judging from South Korea’s experience, the contagiousness of “stealth Omicron” partially overrides the effects of vaccination. From late February to mid-April 2022, when this strain entered the ROK, the rate of infection was 150,000-200,000 a day, and at its peak, on March 22, 2022, the country had 490,707 cases a day, taking into account the fact that by this time the Republic of Korea had already successfully vaccinated the majority (70+%) of the population. Some specialists say that Omicron has proven resistant to the majority of vaccines, and for this reason the vaccination, if carried out, would have reduced the number of cases but would not have prevented the epidemic altogether.

Mass vaccination has indeed not taken place in the DPRK, with the North refusing not only international or South Korean aid, but also Chinese aid. Pyongyang rejected about 3 million doses of the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine and 2 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine in 2021 because of concerns over possible side-effects.  Nevertheless, the author is aware that limited quantities of vaccines did reach the DPRK: some were passed on to children, and some to those involved in processing goods from abroad.

A more interesting question is what led to the decision to skip mass vaccination, but the author believes that the following possible problems were taken into account:

  • Vaccinating the entire country requires 60 million doses of vaccine, and delivering them is a complex logistical operation with the potential for virus infiltration – just as it was the case with the ROK, where hospital admission rooms with crowds of people in them became a breeding ground for infection.
  • Vaccines come with a storage infrastructure, and as an inspection of Pyongyang pharmacies by Kim Jong-un himself a few days into the epidemic showed, not all pharmacies had refrigerators for medicines even in the capital. The lack of modern medical equipment, which is on sanctions lists as potential dual-use products (or, according to anti-Pyongyang experts, will be sent to the army or the authorities rather than the suffering people), is a big problem for the North.
  • Those vaccines offered to the DPRK, particularly AstraZeneca, have been criticized because of frequent side-effects such as increased blood clotting. In this context, the North Korean healthcare system may have had problems not with mass vaccination but rather with overcoming its side-effects, which require medical equipment, the big part of which remains under sanctions. The country risked an additional outbreak of disease as well as reputational damage. In addition, the DPRK’s media have repeatedly stressed that vaccination is not a panacea (especially when a number of the first vaccine samples performed poorly against the lethal Delta strain) and will not replace quarantine.
  • Then, even low-quality vaccines are not provided for free and require payment in foreign currency, and in the DPRK there are almost none due to sanctions’ pressure.
  • Finally, there remained considerations of secrecy and danger of sabotage, which brings the author to his next point.

 Can we believe the official North Korean version that the coronavirus was deliberately brought from the South?

During an event on August 10, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korea’s leader, accused South Korea of introducing the coronavirus infection into North Korea and threatened to consider harsh retaliation, in case actions involving balloons with leaflets and more continued through the DMZ.

Earlier, on June 30, 2022, the DPRK’s State Emergency Anti-epidemic Headquarters (SEAH) made public the result of work carried out to clarify the virus’s entry channel. An 18-year-old soldier and a 5-year-old child in the border area with the ROK were the first to be infected, according to the KCNA. The first symptoms of the disease manifested themselves after they contacted with “alien object brought from the south” in early April. The media warned residents of areas adjacent to South Korean territory to refrain from contacting and handling “things and objects attached to balloons.”

It is highly likely that this official version is intended, on the one hand, to highlight “besieged fortress” syndrome and, on the other hand, to reassure the masses against touching anything suspicious, given that the media discusses the problem of a lack of ideological fortitude, especially among young people. The assumption that the coronavirus came from China following the opening of trade seems preferable, but there are, alas, arguments in favor of Pyongyang’s version.

The fact is that we are all well aware of the kind of personalities involved in dropping balloons with leaflets and more into DPRK territory. Park Sang-hak’s biography was covered in a previous piece on him, including the attempted drone attacks from PRC territory, which he himself admitted to. The author also wrote about the fact that, according to defector Hong Gang-chul, bioterrorism was well under discussion back in 2020. As Hong stated in an interview with the Hankyoreh Shinmun newspaper: “People in the defector community did talk about it. Sending contaminated items will only hurt other Koreans. Basic human decency tells you that even an enemy should not be treated that way.”

Now recall that the outbreak started at the very end of April, namely on April 25-26, 2022. The Fighters for a Free North Korea sent 1 million propaganda leaflets to North Korea in 20 large balloons.

Everything we know about previous attempts of Park Sang-hak and the likes to “rock the boat” suggests that such a group could not only think of the concept of bioterrorism, but could put it into practice. It is another matter that, like drones with explosives, the sabotage could have failed for technical reasons, but what matters is not so much the fact that the sabotage was successful, but the intent in and of itself. The ROK Ministry of Unification, while commenting on the Pyongyang statement, denied the possibility to transfer COVID-19 in such a way. But even if the chance of infection by contact with an object is one hundredth of a percent, when such objects are launched in batches of half a million, the probability increases.

Was the official Seoul involved?

In the author’s view, such sabotage is not so much the initiative of the Yoon Seok-yeol regime, which is trying to be pragmatic, but of far-right conservatives who, amid the change of power in the ROK, decided that the new conservative administration, unlike the Democrats, would not try to interfere with such plans. However, Pyongyang holds Yoon Seok-yeol at least symbolically responsible, as it is difficult for the North to accept the idea that an event with a risk to lead to such dire consequences had no approval from the authorities. All the more so because even under the democrats, well-funded NGOs often did what the official administration was afraid to do.

Has Kim Jong-un had the coronavirus? What would it mean?

Kim Yo-jong’s speech at a national meeting on emergency quarantine measures the previous day revealed that her brother, Marshal Kim Jong-un, had contracted the so-called “high fever syndrome.” The illness was quite severe, but the head of state continued to deal with state affairs. This seems to be true, as Kim famously does work hard and tries to set himself as an example to the party members, and during the coronavirus outbreak he did a lot of leadership on the ground, personally figuring out the situation “in the field.”

According to the ROK media, taking the time needed to cure COVID-19 into account, the most probable periods of DPRK leader’s illness can be May 2-12, May 29 – June 9, July 8-27. During these periods, Kim appeared in public only very rarely.

If one were to try to make sense of the propaganda message of the news, there are two aspects. Firstly, it shows that the state is so far from casting its own people adrift and hiding from the pandemic that even the chief has had the virus, who is actually supposed to be hiding in a bunker as befits a ruler of the land of evil. This point is very important given that thirty years ago, during natural disasters and the famine they caused, the state could only save large cities and important structures, simply leaving the rest of the population to survive on their own.

Secondly, such news shows that Kim is not trying to create a cult for himself and is positioning himself as a person like everyone else, rather than a sacred leader. Although “the third” Kim is very similar to the first one, he has not yet created a cult of personality equal to his father or grandfather.

 How has the DPRK defeated coronavirus and what has the authoritarian regime to do with this?

The credit for keeping the epidemic under control belongs to the peculiarity of the management structure. The very strict quarantine that allowed the DPRK to go two years and two months without the virus, the nationwide lockdown imposed as soon as infiltration was confirmed and the army involved in the delivery and distribution of medication, that is what made it possible to promptly take quarantine measures. The Worker-Peasant Red Guards, acting as territorial defense, was used to supply the population with food and medication.

Medical students and military doctors as well as retired medics have been mobilized in order to increase the number of specialists. This allowed most sick people to stay at home and be consulted during house-to-house visits, which put pressure on doctors but saved room and time for hospitals and their staff to address really serious cases.

Constant publicity about the pace of the epidemic and Kim Jong-un’s personal involvement in anti-epidemic activities has rather demonstrated to the masses that the state is not abandoning them this time and has further stimulated mass discipline. One can argue whether eagerness or fear played a bigger role, but in any case compliance was higher than in European countries, where one of the reasons for the spread of the virus was the lack of trust in the government, which made people slow to implement its orders of an alleged conspiracy nature.

An authoritarian regime has many disadvantages, but one of the advantages is its ability to quickly manipulate forces and resources, including ignoring anger of ordinary citizens.

What was the cost of victory for the DPRK?

The question of what the cost of all this was remains yet to be answered. It is known that the Kaesong lockdown faced problems in securing supplies for the city and Kim Jong-un eventually allocated funds from strategic reserves (rice).   But the extent to which this has been taken into account in 2022 is unknown, and considerations regarding the North Korean “safety cushion” are anyway firmly dependent on the bias of authors.

As you may know, May and June is the sowing season in DPRK, and despite city lockdowns, work has been going on in the countryside, as well as on state key construction projects.

Nevertheless, it may be noted that even anti-Pyongyang propaganda did not write about the wave of economic problems or pandemic-induced price hikes on the black market. It can therefore be assumed that in order to cope with the problem the DPRK initially resorted to funds from the reserve, but eventually the problem was resolved.

 And in conclusion…

The outbreak of “fever” illustrated well the cost of the “anonymous reports from well-informed sources from the DPRK, sympathetic to ideals of democracy” that anti-Pyongyang propaganda so often cites.

Firstly, although they had previously fed audiences rumors of the “catastrophic scale” of the epidemic in the North, they had missed the real outbreak. Secondly, although every disappearance of Kim Jong-un from public space for more than two weeks was immediately surrounded by rumors of a coup, death or at least illness, including the coronavirus, no one ever reported it when Kim actually fell ill.

That is why the author kindly asks his audience to remember this moment when they are next confronted with descriptions of the “secrets of the Pyongyang court” from such propagandists.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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