Kim Jong-un inspects a pharmacy store in Pyongyang. He is highly dissatisfied with the authorities’ response (Image: KNS/KCNA/AFP/Afro“I have instructed all pharmacies to be open 24 hours a day, but they are not doing so properly. There are major problems in the drug supply system. There is absolutely no sense of crisis.”
At an emergency council meeting on May 15, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un harshly criticized the head of the insurance and medical sector.
Kim Jong-un’s anger is understandable. On May 12, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced the first confirmed cases of infection with the new coronavirus in North Korea, reporting that some 350,000 people have been suffering from fever of “unknown cause” since late April. The total number of people with fever up to May 22 was 2.81 million, with 68 deaths, meaning that more than 10% of the country’s population of 26 million or so is suffering from fever.
According to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, North Korean authorities do not know the exact number of infected people due to a lack of testing kits. The actual number of deaths is five to six times higher. In addition to the new corona, measles and typhoid fever are believed to be spreading simultaneously.
The North Korean authorities must be in a great deal of hurry. The Workers’ Party of Korea’s official newspaper, the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), has published a specific remedy tips on how to deal with the disease: “You should drink an infusion of willow leaves three times a day,” and “honey is very effective in relieving coughs.”
Once you enter, you can’t leave
Many people do not report suspicious symptoms of infection to the authorities. Mr. Yeongki Ko, editor-in-chief of “Daily NK Japan” and an expert on the situation on the Korean Peninsula, speaks of the situation.
“The most severely ill are placed in quarantine facilities in the various regions. However, the environment is extremely poor. Food is not provided properly, and there is a bad reputation that once you cannot come out once you enter the quarantine facility. There is no end to the number of people who do not report symptoms such as fever and diarrhea for fear of being sent to the quarantine facilities.”
North Korea has finally acknowledged the existence of infected people, but there have been suspected cases since the beginning of 2020 when the new corona began to spread worldwide. The outbreak took place in the military, where people are forced to live in groups. In March of the same year, the Medical Bureau of the Korean People’s Army reported to the Supreme Command that about 180 people had died and 3,700 had been quarantined, mainly in units near the border with China.
“Health officials had initially ordered the cremation of the bodies of those believed to have died from the new corona. However, there were so many bodies that they could not keep up with the cremation. They were also probably afraid that a large amount of smoke and smell would make the public aware of the actual condition of the bodies. The order was changed from cremation to “thoroughly disinfect the bodies.”
Kim Jong-un has positioned the spread of the new corona infection as “the greatest upheaval“ since the founding of the country. At the emergency council meeting introduced at the beginning of this report, he gave orders in a strong tone to all concerned parties.
“We must adhere to a high level of tension and vigilance and survive the quarantine war. All operations must be carried out scientifically and meticulously. We cannot afford any lapses or blind spots.”
So far, North Korea has refused to accept medical aid from abroad, including vaccines. If it accepts the aid, it will admit that its quarantine policy to date has been a failure. However, if the explosive spread of the disease is not stopped, public dissatisfaction could rise and shake the dictatorship. Kim Jong-un is faced with a major dilemma.