For more than two years, people around the world have been infected with the corona virus. The pandemic has now even arrived in North Korea. Although there is "only" talk of fever in the isolated country, the dictatorship still has to adapt to hard times.
On May 12, North Korea reports its very first corona cases - more than two years after the beginning of the pandemic. Since then, more than 250,000 people with fever symptoms have been registered every day. Apparently the code word of the communist dictatorship for corona symptoms.
Samples from the fever patients in the capital Pyongyang reportedly match the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus. It is therefore not surprising that well over two million people with fever symptoms have already been registered by government agencies, i.e. almost ten percent of the North Korean population.
However, it is not known how many of them are going through a corona disease and will probably remain uncertain. North Korea does not have the resources to conduct large-scale testing. There are hardly any corona tests in the country - and probably only a limited willingness to publicly communicate a possible health disaster.
Currently, the case reports only speak of fever, "but the analogy is clear and is not disputed," emphasizes North Korea expert Rüdiger Frank in the ntv interview. The country is even dealing with the pandemic fairly openly by its standards. North Korean government agencies are reporting the spread online, sometimes in real time. That speaks for the fact that one wants to inform the outside world, explains the East Asia scientist.
The unusually open information policy could also be due to "an unprecedented extent" of infections, says Frank. Or it is because the capital Pyongyang, which is important for the stability of the regime, is also affected and not just individual rural areas.
How the corona virus got into North Korea, which has been completely isolated since the beginning of the pandemic, cannot be reconstructed. Rumor has it that trade contacts with China, which have been cautiously resumed since the beginning of the year, are responsible.
North Korea's healthcare system is extremely poorly positioned compared to western countries, but in contrast to many third world countries it is still relatively well organized. The state itself also functions in a certain way, says Rüdiger Frank. This "usually has negative effects", but in this case the strong state could "prove to be positive", according to the North Korea expert.
But even if ruler Kim Jong Un tries everything to demonstrate that North Korea lacks nothing in the fight against the virus, the country is literally not capable of surviving. There is a lack of funds for intensive medical care of the sick. So Kim has ordered his military to help distribute medicines.
The treatment of corona patients is only possible to a limited extent, says Frank. In addition, many people in North Korea have a weakened immune system. The reason is years of malnutrition. In addition, the country has been struggling with another lung disease for years. There are many tuberculosis sufferers. These are all bad prerequisites for dealing with a pandemic now. WHO chief Tedros Ghebreyesus is also concerned, mainly because the population is unvaccinated and many people have other underlying diseases. For some North Koreans, the situation is life-threatening.
North Korea has so far not responded to offers from its hated neighbor South Korea and the United States for vaccines and other medical supplies. The isolated country only accepts help from China, reports Rüdiger Frank. Beijing is the country's most important ally.
But even this help cannot solve a central problem. If people are sick with Corona or have to stay at home in the strict North Korean lockdown, they cannot work. And right now, at the beginning of summer, agriculture, which is enormously important for North Korea, needs every helping hand with the harvest.
And a bad harvest would have serious consequences for the country. The United Nations fear that a serious hunger crisis is imminent. "The recent restrictions will have serious consequences for those who are already struggling to meet their basic needs, including food supplies," said Liz Throssell of the UN Human Rights Office.
The state media report that North Korea can maintain production in the most important branches of industry, but as always, information from the isolated dictatorship should be treated with great caution.
(This article was first published on Tuesday, May 31, 2022.)