We asked Sokeel Park, LiNK’s Director of Research and Strategy, about Coronavirus in North Korea and what effect it is having on the lives of the North Korean people.
What’s the situation regarding the Coronavirus in North Korea?
It looks bad, but since the North Korean government is characteristically withholding information and international experts and journalists lack access, it’s impossible to know exactly how bad the situation really is across the country. The North Korean government is claiming that there haven’t been any cases at all, but they have a terrible track record of transparency in such circumstances, and there have been multiple reports of deaths in different parts of the country.
Even though the government moved quickly to isolate the country from China and quarantine foreigners and potential carriers, it’s implausible that North Korea has dodged the virus. Beyond the immediate impact of the disease, there has been widespread economic hardship and rising prices as a result of strict restrictions of movement inside the country, a massive slowdown in official trade with China, and severe crackdowns on smuggled trade. Like elsewhere, public events have also been canceled and schools have been closed.
What’s the healthcare system like for North Koreans? Can it deal with something like this?
The North Korean government is good at surveilling and controlling people but is awful at providing for their needs. Even developed countries are struggling, and the public healthcare system in North Korea has been dilapidated for decades.
Local hospitals often lack even the most basic supplies and patients are forced to procure medicine through the markets instead of the official public health system. North Korea’s testing capacity will be poor and prioritized to elites in Pyongyang, so for much of the country the health infrastructure can probably do little other than force people showing symptoms into quarantine, leaving old people and those with pre-existing conditions at very high risk.
Beyond some information on the number of people quarantined and state media messaging about how seriously they are taking this threat, the government has not been providing sufficient public information for people to understand the risks of spread in their local area and act accordingly to keep themselves and their families safe.
How has the Coronavirus affected North Korean refugees?
The border shutdown has made it almost impossible to escape North Korea in the first place, with warnings that North Korean border guards may even shoot Chinese people who come too close to the border. And because of ongoing restrictions in China, North Korean refugees cannot move through that country to reach safety either.
We have not been able to move any North Korean refugees since January, so very few North Koreans will make it to South Korea in the first quarter of this year, and it will likely be a very low year overall. We’ve also heard that the border crackdowns have made it harder for North Korean defectors in South Korea to communicate and send money to their families in North Korea.
This compounds the hardships faced by North Koreans inside the country, especially in border areas. North Korean friends in South Korea, like the rest of us, are hoping that we will all overcome the Coronavirus as soon as possible.
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