North Korea has triumphantly declared that it has zero cases of COVID-19, a virus that’s turned into a global pandemic and put entire nations on lockdown.
The problem with Kim Jong Un’s chest-thumping proclamations, however, are that no one believes them.
North Korea is bordered by China and South Korea, two of the worst-hit countries in the world. On Monday, China announced it had 81,036 cases of COVID-19 and more than 3,200 deaths.
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South Korea, which has the world’s most aggressive screening policy, has fared much better. Global health experts have praised South Korea’s ability to test so many of its residents.
The country had examined more than a quarter-million people, which roughly translates to one test for every 200 residents. News that new cases in South Korea have recently leveled off are prompting some international leaders to replicate South Korea’s approach.
North Korea is probably not one of those countries since it refuses to acknowledge that anyone has it, despite scores of anecdotal evidence to the contrary.
“It’s impossible for North Korea not to have a single case of coronavirus,” Jung H. Pak, a former CIA analyst on North Korea, told Fox News.
Pak, now a Brookings Institute fellow, believes that Kim is lying about the numbers to show the world he is still in control and can protect his people from the deadly disease despite a decade of crippling economic and financial sanctions put on the country for human rights abuses, cyberattacks, money laundering and the fight over denuclearization.
Pyongyang says it has been able to shield itself from COVID-19 by being proactive in its fight for “national survival.” The country has closed its border, cut trade with China, extended its quarantine period to 30 days and put restrictions on the activities of foreign diplomatic and international staff based in North Korea. In effect, the country is boasting that its isolation from the rest of the world is what is saving them.
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While there is little chance of the virus hopping the heavily militarized border with South Korea or coming in through closed-off lines with China, there have been black market traders operating in the area for years who could have brought the virus with them into the country.
General Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, believes another tip-off that North Korea has COVID-19 casualties is the lack of military activity in recent weeks.
Abrams told reporters Friday that the United States is “fairly certain” Pyongyang has felt the devastation linked to the coronavirus.
“It is a closed-off nation, so we can’t say emphatically that they have cases, but we’re fairly certain they do,” Abrams said. “What I do know is that their armed forces had been fundamentally in a lockdown for about 30 days and only recently have they started routine training again. As one example, they didn’t fly an airplane for 24 days.”
Then there are dozens of anecdotal claims of a North Korean cover-up.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which oversees inter-Korean relations, said in late February that Pyongyang had reported to the World Health Organization that it had tested 141 suspected cases of coronavirus but that they all came back negative. However, South Korean media, which has relied on anonymous sources, has reported cases of coronavirus in North Korea, with some being fatal.
Around the same time, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said that the United States is “deeply concerned about the vulnerability of the North Korean people to a coronavirus outbreak.”
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Despite contradicting claims from North Korea and South Korea, the one thing that is certain is that if the virus is in Pyongyang it could mean widespread devastation for a country that has been cut off from the rest of the world. Pak believes North Korea’s decades of mismanagement, a medical system that’s not up to par as well as stinging sanctions that have left 40 percent of its people malnourished will only exacerbate the situation.