SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea is quarantining thousands of people and shipping food and other aid to a southern city locked down over coronavirus worries, officials said, as the country’s response to a suspected case reinforces doubt about its longstanding claim to be virus-free.
But amid the outside skepticism and a stream of North Korean propaganda glorifying its virus efforts, an exchange between the country and the United Nations is providing new clarity — and actual numbers — about what might be happening in North Korea, which has closed its borders and cut travel — never a free-flowing stream — by outsider monitors and journalists.
In late July, North Korea said it had imposed its “maximum emergency system” to guard against the virus spreading after finding a person with COVID-19 symptoms in Kaesong city, near the border with rival South Korea.
State media reported that leader Kim Jong Un then ordered a total lockdown of Kaesong, and said the suspected case was a North Korean who had earlier fled to South Korea before slipping back into Kaesong last month.
North Korea’s public admission of its first potential case and the emergency steps it took prompted immediate outside speculation that it may be worried about a big outbreak after months of steadfastly claiming it had no cases. Foreign experts are highly skeptical of North Korea’s assertion of no cases, in large part because of its long, porous border with China, where the virus emerged, and its history of hiding past disease outbreaks.
In a report to the World Health Organization, North Korea said it has quarantined 64 first contacts of the suspected Keasong case and 3,571 secondary contacts in state-run facilities for a period of 40 days, according to Dr. Edwin Salvador, WHO representative to North Korea.
Salvador said in an email to The Associated Press that North Korea also informed WHO of the suspected first case, saying the person was tested for COVID-19 but the results were inconclusive. Salvador said WHO has requested that North Korea share more information about the person.
Salvador said all of North Korea’s borders remain closed, group gatherings are banned, masks are required in public, and all educational institutions, including preschools, are on an extended summer break. Since the end of December, North Korea has quarantined and released 25,905 people, 382 of them foreigners, Salvador said.
Many outside observers are all but certain the virus has already entered North Korea because it closed its border with China, its biggest trading partner, weeks after the world’s first known virus cases were recorded in China in December. Monitoring groups in Seoul have steadfastly reported about North Korean virus cases and deaths.
A major coronavirus outbreak may cause a humanitarian disaster because of North Korea’s broken public health care system and lack of medical supplies.
But it’s unclear how serious North Korea’s current situation is.
“Though a really extensive local outbreak might not have occurred yet, it’s likely that a considerable number of people has been infected,” said analyst Hong Min at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification. “Even though North Korea locks itself down, there should be suspected cases there and authorities must aggressively diagnose them. But North Korea has never been transparent about whether it has such a capacity and the will to do so.”
North Korea’s state media have recently churned out articles thick with rallying propaganda that describe the latest anti-virus work as “an all-people’s campaign” that demonstrates the Kim government’s resolve to protect public safety “at any cost.” The articles also say that any individual carelessness or breach of anti-virus guidelines may lead to “critical consequences.”
State media said North Korea has deployed more health workers, sanitized personnel and goods, and used loudspeakers to raise public awareness of the virus. The Korean Central News Agency said Thursday that 550,000 aid items have been sent to Kaesong.
North Korea’s claimed emergency steps suggest that an outbreak there may have worsened, said Kim Sin-gon, a professor at Korea University College of Medicine in Seoul. North Korea may also aim to win aid from South Korea or others, but wants to save face by saying its suspected Kaesong case is someone who had been in South Korea, he said.
Before returning to North Korea, the suspected first case, identified in South Korea as a 24-year-old man surnamed Kim, hadn’t tested positive in South Korea and never had contact with any patient, South Korean health official Yoon Taeho said.
The motive for his return to North Korea isn’t known. More than 33,000 North Koreans have escaped to South Korea over the past 22 years for political and economic reasons, but only a handful have returned to North Korea.
Police said the man was questioned in June on an allegation that he had sexually assaulted a female North Korean refugee. The man denied the accusation. Last month, the national forensic service told police it found DNA evidence of the assault, and police were continuing to investigate, according to the Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police Agency.