Kim Jong-un acted quickly. On January 22, 2020, North Korea closed its borders with China and Russia to stop a new, mysterious virus from spreading into the country. At the time, what we now know as Covid-19, had killed just nine people and infected 400 others. More than a year later, the hermit kingdom’s border remains sealed tight shut.
North Korea’s response to the pandemic has been one of the most extreme and paranoid in the world, experts say. The lockdowns and quarantines it has imposed have been strict, while border restrictions have put a halt to fishing and the smuggling of goods into the country. At the same time the nation’s state media and propaganda apparatus has pumped out messages warning its citizens of the dangers of Covid-19 and praising the country’s “flawless” approach to the pandemic.
But the real impact of Covid-19 on North Korea—and its citizens—remains a mystery. Faced with a global health crisis, the country has turned inwards more than ever. “North Korea, in general, is more difficult to know this year or last year than at almost any point in the last two decades,” says Sokeel Park, the director of research at Liberty in North Korea, a group that works with defectors from the country to understand what happens inside its borders. “It seems clear to me that, nonetheless, the North Korean government has massively overreacted”.
Officially, North Korea has recorded no cases of Covid-19. Weekly reports from the World Health Organization’s South-East Asia office show that North Korean samples from PCR tests are being processed in 15 laboratories but all of these have come back negative. As of January 8, the most recent date for which figures are available, 26,244 samples from 13,259 people have come back negative. Around 700 North Koreans, out of a population of 25 million, are being tested each week.
“I don’t know many people in the North Korea watcher, analyst and journalist community that actually believe there are no cases,” Park says. All of the North Korea experts spoken to for this article agree. Some have accused North Korea of lying, while others suggest its approach is all about keeping control and public perception.
The closest officials got to admitting there may be a case was in July when state newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported a “state of emergency” had been declared in Kaesong City, in the south of the country. The newspaper reported a defector who had returned to the country from South Korea was “suspected” to have Covid-19. But the case was never confirmed. Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, has hit back at suggestions from South Korea that the country may have had cases, describing such talk as “reckless”.
From the outside, it is impossible to prove the scale of the Covid-19 crisis in North Korea. All official messaging is controlled by Kim Jong-un’s regime and international diplomats and humanitarian groups have largely left the country. The last remaining members of the International Committee of the Red Cross left the country on December 2. The result is that little reliable information finds its way out of North Korea—those with contacts inside the country and who work with defectors say it has been impossible to work out the reality of the health situation on the ground.
Despite reporting no cases of Covid-19, North Korea has been quarantining potential suspected cases. As of December 3, 33,223 people had been released from quarantine, according to the figures reported to the WHO—though no numbers have been reported since. Quarantine rules in North Korea are also strict, according to reports. When an outbreak occurred in China, North Korea tracked down all Chinese visitors in the town of Rason and quarantined them on an island for a month.