North Korea, notorious for dishonest state run media and propaganda has an official coronavirus case count of zero at this time.
Los Angeles Times reports if the country is to be believed, North Korea is one of maybe a dozen nations not yet invaded by a deadly virus that has spread across the globe from remote islands in the South Pacific to outposts nestled high in the Pyrenees or the Greater Himalayas.
North Korea’s assertion would mean that despite sharing a nearly 900-mile border with China, one tens of thousands have crossed to escape or navigated as part of a robust smuggling trade, the isolated nation has managed to block a mercurial virus that has upended richer and more powerful countries.
The U.S., its longtime existential foe, has more than a quarter of a million confirmed cases of the coronavirus. China, its erstwhile backer and most important trading partner, has more than 80,000.
North Korea’s official coronavirus count is zero.
The tightly controlled country has boasted to its people that international organizations and public health experts were marveling at its success in keeping the virus at bay. As recently as this week, a state health official rebuffed suspicions that the country was being less than forthcoming about its coronavirus situation, telling foreign reporters in Pyongyang that not a single person had come down with COVID-19 thus far.
The lack of free media and scant independent monitoring make nearly impossible to vet the official account. Yet many outside observers and officials have questioned the country’s claim, alleging the regime of Kim Jong Un may be suppressing information or willfully blind to potential local outbreaks because it lacks the capacity to conduct widespread diagnostic testing.
With a poorly equipped medical system ravaged by sanctions in recent years, the country has struggled with a population susceptible to infection, widespread malnutrition and inadequate sanitation. An outbreak of the coronavirus may be an impending disaster, former North Korean health professionals and outside experts say.
“You can’t trust North Korean statistics,” said Choi Jung-hun, who worked for a decade as a physician in North Korea before escaping in 2011. “The epidemic really plainly shows the nature of the North Korean regime…. The regime’s face saving is more important than citizens’ health or life.”
In fact, North Korea was one of the first countries in the world to take swift action as the coronavirus began spreading in China. It closed its borders to foreign tourists in January, around the same time China imposed travel restrictions in Wuhan. It imposed strict, lengthy quarantines on foreign diplomats and canceled virtually all international flights. More than 10,000 of its citizens were placed under isolation or travel restrictions as measures against the virus.
Nagi Shafik, a public health advisor and a former project manager for the World Health Organization in North Korea, said the early drastic steps indicated how cognizant the government was of the threat that an epidemic could pose to its stability.
“They don’t have medicine,” he said. “They don’t have reagents to diagnose cases. They don’t have protective equipment. If I were them, I would do the same thing, this is the only thing I have. To close borders with China, this is the lifeline for them. It shows you how desperate they were.”
But as much as North Korea’s authoritarian system is able to impose severe restrictions on its citizens’ movements, the virus is likely to make it into the country at some point if it hasn’t already, he said.
“Sooner or later something will spill over,” said Shafik, who last visited the country in 2019 to consult on a humanitarian mission. “Whatever you try, everywhere in the world, some people go through the borders without being noticed.”