It’s only been a month since North Korea acknowledged it had a COVID-19 outbreak, after steadfastly denying cases for more than two years. But perhaps it is already preparing to declare victory.
According to state media, North Korea has mass deaths many expected in a country with one of the world’s worst health care systems, little or no access to vaccines and what outsiders see as a long track record of ignoring the suffering of its people.
North Korea’s official virus numbers, experts say, have as much to do with propaganda to boost leader Kim Jong Un as with a true picture of what’s happening in the country, and there’s great doubt about its accuracy.
What is clear, however, is that the daily updates from the state media make it seem inevitable that the nation will defeat a virus that has killed more than 6 million people around the world. Cases in North Korea are declining sharply, according to the official tally, and while 18% of the country’s 26 million people have reportedly experienced symptoms that outsiders suspect were from COVID-19, fewer than 100 have died.
The South Korean government and other observers believe North Korea may soon declare that it has overcome the virus. This achievement will, of course, be coupled with Kim’s strong and smart guidance.
However, a victory round is not a foregone conclusion. Such a proclamation would deprive Kim of a useful tool to monitor the public and could expose the government to humiliation if things continue, experts say.
“There are two sides to such a statement,” said Moon Seong Mook, an analyst at the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy. “When North Korea says that COVID-19 is gone, it can emphasize that Kim Jong Un is a great leader who has overcome the pandemic. But by doing so, it cannot maintain the powerful restrictions it uses to keep its people in check in the name of containing COVID-19.”
Outsiders suspect Kim is using the outbreak to bolster internal unity at a time when many of his people are fed up with the more than two years of draconian curbs that have damaged their livelihoods.
Many signs, at least in public statements, point to a declaration of success in fighting a virus that has left the world’s richest countries confused.
In the early stages of the outbreak, Kim described a “major upheaval” as daily fever cases — North Korea rarely identifies them as COVID-19, presumably because it lacks testing kits — reached about 400,000. Now, however, the leader suggests the outbreak has reached its peak, with his health officials maintaining the country’s widely controversial 0.002% death rate, the lowest in the world.
Outside experts are struggling to determine the true state of misery in North Korea, which has banned almost all foreign journalists, aid workers and diplomats since early 2020.
It is widely believed that North Korea is manipulating its death toll to avoid harming Kim. It could also be that the number of past fever cases has been exaggerated to increase vigilance against the virus and gain more public support for authorities’ pandemic controls. North Korea recently reported about 17,000 to 30,000 new cases of fever per day, for a total of 4.7 million. It says – to widespread disbelief – that only 73 have died.
Whatever the real situation, outside control groups say they have detected no signs of anything catastrophic in North Korea.
“If a large number of people had died, there would have been evidence, but there isn’t,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University in Seoul. For example, during a famine in the 1990s, rumors of widespread deaths and abandoned bodies spread to China and South Korea.
Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector in Seoul who runs a company that analyzes the north’s economy, said three of her contacts in the city of Hyesan told her during phone calls that most of their relatives had suspected COVID-19 symptoms. have had. But they told her that none of their relatives, neighbors or acquaintances have died from COVID-19, although they have heard rumors of deaths in other cities.
“During an earlier phone call, one of my sources cried a little when she said she was afraid bad things could happen in her family. [because of COVID-19]† But now she and others have stabilized and sometimes laugh when we’re on the phone,” Kang said.
At a recent meeting of the ruling party, Kim said the country’s pandemic struggle has passed the stage of “unexpected serious crisis”. State media has urged the public to rally behind Kim to fully overcome the pandemic.
Cho Joonghoon, a spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which oversees relations with the North, told reporters last week that Kim’s regime could announce this month that the COVID-19 crisis has been resolved.
Nam, the South Korean professor, said the outbreak appears to have abated in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang, but is likely to continue in rural areas, where people with symptoms are venturing out because they depend on food for a living. market activities and have no access to public rations.
“I think North Korea will declare a victory over the pandemic a little later. It would lose face if it proclaimed victory too soon and new patients showed up after that,” Nam said.
Kang, the defector, said North Korean residents in Hyesan are following the government’s pandemic orders, and few fever patients leave their homes during quarantine periods.
Because North Korea believes the pandemic, UN sanctions and other economic difficulties will continue, it’s unlikely to lift major restrictions anytime soon, said Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul. .
“The United States and other countries with advanced healthcare and medical systems have not declared an end to COVID-19. So North Korea will also find it much harder to do that,” Lim said.
The global vaccine alliance Gavi said earlier this month it understood that North Korea had accepted an offer of vaccines from China. But North Korea has ignored offers of medical assistance from South Korea and the United States.
Despite the COVID-19 outbreak, North Korea has continued to test missiles this year. But it hasn’t conducted a widely anticipated nuclear test, possibly because of concerns about a response from people still struggling with the virus.
North Korea can officially declare victory over the virus when daily fever cases and the pandemic situation in neighboring China significantly ease, said Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKhealth.org, a website that focuses on health problems in North Korea. But he said such a statement won’t mean much, as North Korea likely only acknowledged the outbreak last month after determining it was manageable.
“According to North Korea, it beats everything. It does not recognize things it cannot overcome. It always wins absolutely, whether it be related to military, economic or pandemic issues,” Ahn said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times†