North Korea's silence on pandemic arouses skepticism in South

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has appeared on state media several times in 2020 but has not disclosed details on the country's response to the coronavirus or the impact of the disease in the country. File Photo by Jeon Heon-kyun/EPA-EFE
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has appeared on state media several times in 2020 but has not disclosed details on the country's response to the coronavirus or the impact of the disease in the country. File Photo by Jeon Heon-kyun/EPA-EFE

NEW YORK, Sept. 9 (UPI) -- North Korea's claims that it is free of COVID-19 are raising serious concerns in the South that the country is struggling to contain the coronavirus amid other problems that include malnutrition, tuberculosis and even malaria.

Pyongyang's decision to isolate at a time when inter-state cooperation is crucial in combating a deadly virus is a sign North Korea has likely been hit hard, South Korean analysts say.


E.J.R. Cho, a research fellow at state-funded think tank Institute for National Security Strategy, said Tuesday at a livestreamed forum hosted by Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification that North Korea only has limited access to diagnostic kits.

North Korea also shares borders with China and Russia, countries that reported relatively high numbers of COVID-19 cases at an earlier stage of the pandemic.

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"The past couple of years have witnessed an uptick in Chinese tourists to North Korea," Cho said at the panel, where analysts took turns speaking without removing their masks. "It's hard to believe North Korea is a COVID-19-free country."

South Korea has offered to help North Korea. Pyongyang has not issued a public response. Cho said tripartite cooperation among the United States, South and North Korea could be the answer to what she thinks is a serious health crisis in the isolated North.


Cho's proposals, which include supplying North Korea with basic materials to manufacture key drugs domestically, would be built on interstate cooperation.

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So far, however, the pandemic has illustrated that deeper cooperation, even when humanity faces a common enemy, is difficult to achieve amid an atmosphere of animosity and anxiety.

China, where coronavirus cases were first reported, and the United States, the country with the highest number of COVID-19-related deaths, are locked in a blame game, said Cha Du Hyeogn, a principal fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. The two countries are developing vaccines independently even when it is obvious cooperation would mean a faster path out of the pandemic, Cha said.

COVID-19 has demonstrated that emerging security, a concept that goes beyond notions of traditional security to address issues like climate change, disease and the refugee crisis, has the potential to inflict enormous damage around the world, according to the analyst.

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"There was this perception dominant powers and other countries would work to build more trust" when faced with a common threat, Cha said. "But in fact, in the post-COVID world, some countries began to divert from that cooperation."

Cha said security theorists expected a universal danger would push countries to practice transparency and coordinate with each other. Instead, in an era of high nationalism, each country tried to address the pandemic individually.


North Korea has also doubled down on national pride in its official statements. The pandemic has yet to produce any patients in the country, according to North Korean media, although the state does not even have the capacity to test widely for COVID-19, says Cho Han-bum, a senior research fellow at KINU.

The situation remains dire in the North, Cho also said, referring to North Korea's food shortage and tuberculosis deaths over the years that are estimated to be about 200,000.

Cho said there may have been 1,200 COVID-19 tests conducted in North Korea this summer -- a number too small to detect, trace and prevent the further spread of the disease.

"Swine flu is ongoing," Cho said, referring to the disease among pig populations that began last year in China and spread to the Korean Peninsula. "Now, without South Korean assistance, malaria is spreading in North Korea."

E.J.R. Cho said multilateralism is needed now more than ever around the world. Bilateral relations stagnate and are not enough to keep up the momentum of inter-state cooperation, she said.

"Why don't we think of a bicycle?" she said. "If we do not pedal at a certain speed, you will fall.

"But a bicycle with supporting wheels [like a tricycle], can enjoy stable operations. You can stably ride the vehicle."


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