Seoul, South Korea –
It’s only been a month since North Korea acknowledged a COVID-19 outbreak, after steadfastly denying any cases for more than two years. But it may be preparing to claim victory.
According to state media, North Korea has avoided the mass death many expect in a country with the world’s worst health care system, little or no access to a vaccine, and which outsiders see as a lasting record of ignoring people’s pain.
Daily updates from the official media show that the country will not be able to avoid a complete defeat of a virus that has killed more than 6 million people around the world. According to official statistics, cases are plummeting, and while 18% of the population of 26 million are reported to have symptoms that outsiders suspect are due to COVID-19, less than 100 have died.
The South Korean government as well as some experts believe that North Korea may soon declare that it has eradicated the virus, which of course has something to do with the strong and clever direction of leader Kim Jong Un.
However, a winning round is not a foregone conclusion. Doing so, according to some experts, would deprive the government of a useful tool for controlling the public and could subject the government to corporal punishment if the incidents continued.
“There are two sides to such a claim,” said Moon Seong Mook, an analyst at the Seoul-based National Institute for Strategic Studies. “If North Korea says COVID-19 is gone, it might emphasize that Kim Jong Un is a great leader who has weathered the pandemic. But in doing so, the country cannot maintain restrictions. powerful force they use to control their own people. The name of contains COVID-19.”
Outsiders suspect that Mr. Kim is using the outbreak to bolster internal unity at a time when many of his people are tired of the two-and-a-half years of draconian curbs that have plagued the country. their livelihood.
However, North Korea refers to its description of the pandemic, many indications, at least in public statements, that point to claims of an amazing success in dealing with a virus that has already passed. confused the richest countries in the world.
During the early stages of the outbreak, Kim described a “huge fluctuation” of daily fever cases – North Korea rarely calls them COVID-19, presumably due to the country’s lack of test kits – amounting to about 400,000. Now, however, the leader thinks the outbreak has peaked, with his health officials maintaining a controversial death rate of 0.002%, the lowest in the world.
The question many outside experts are grappling with is: The real misery in North Korea, which has banned nearly all outside journalists, aid workers and diplomats since the start of the year. 2020?
North Korea is believed to be manipulating its actual death toll to prevent any harm to Mr. It may also have exaggerated the previous number of fever cases to increase vigilance against the virus and garner stronger public support for the authorities’ anti-virus controls. North Korea has recently reported between 17,000 and 30,000 new fever cases per day, for a total of 4.7 million. It said – to widespread outside skepticism – that only 73 people had died.
Whatever the actual situation, outside monitoring groups say they have found no sign of disaster in North Korea.
“If a large number of people die, then there will be some evidence, but not any evidence,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University in South Korea. For example, during a great famine in the 1990s, rumors of death spread and people disposing of bodies spread outside the country, into China and South Korea.
Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector in Seoul who runs a firm that analyzes the North Korean economy, said three of her contacts in the northern city of Hyesan have told told her in phone calls that most of their family members are suspected of having COVID-19. symptom. But she said they told her none of their relatives, neighbors and acquaintances had died from COVID-19, even though they had heard rumors of such deaths in other towns.
“In an earlier phone conversation, one of my sources cried a little bit when she said she was worried that some bad things could happen in her family (because of COVID-19) But now she and the others have become settled and sometimes laugh when we talk on the phone,” Kang said.
During a recent ruling party meeting, Mr Kim said the country’s fight against the pandemic had passed a period of “suddenly serious crisis”. State media have urged the public to rally in support of Kim more firmly to overcome the pandemic completely.
Cho Joonghoon, a spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which oversees relations with North Korea, told reporters last week that North Korea may announce the COVID-19 crisis has been resolved within this month. this.
Nam, the South Korean professor, said the outbreak appeared to have subsided in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, but is likely to continue in rural areas where some people with symptoms are showing signs of illness. risk leaving home because they rely on market operations for their livelihood and do not have access to public rations.
“I think North Korea will declare victory over the pandemic a little later. It will be very embarrassing if it declares victory too soon and then new patients appear,” Nam said.
Kang, a defector, said that North Korean residents in Hyesan were complying with the government’s anti-pandemic order and that some fever patients went out during the quarantine period.
Since North Korea believes the pandemic, UN sanctions and other economic hardships will continue, it is highly unlikely that the country will lift major restrictions anytime soon, said Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.
“The United States and other countries with advanced medical and healthcare systems have yet to declare an end to COVID-19. So North Korea will also find it much harder to do so,” Lim said. speak.
Earlier this month, the global vaccine alliance GAVI said it understood that North Korea had accepted an offer to supply 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-fire missiles this year. But it has yet to carry out a widely anticipated nuclear test, possibly because of worries about a potential backlash from people still struggling with the virus.
Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website specializing in health issues in North Korea, said North Korea can officially declare victory over the virus given the daily fever cases and pandemic situation. in neighboring China has decreased significantly.
However, he said such a statement doesn’t make much sense as North Korea may have only acknowledged the outbreak last month because it had determined it was controllable.
“According to North Korea, it defeats everything. It does not admit what it cannot overcome. It always wins absolutely, regardless of military, economic or pandemic difficulties,” Ahn said. speak.