Seoul, South Korea –
During a recent late-night visit to a pharmacy, a double-masked Kim Jong Un lamented the slow delivery of medicines. Separately, the North Korean leader’s lieutenants have quarantined hundreds of thousands of suspected COVID-19 patients and urged those with mild symptoms to drink willow leaf or honeysuckle tea.
Despite what Northern propaganda calls an all-out effort, fear is palpable among citizens, according to defectors in South Korea with contacts in the North, and some outside observers fear the outbreak could get much worse, with much impoverishment unvaccinated population left without adequate hospital care and struggling to afford even basic medicines.
“North Koreans know that so many people around the world have died from COVID-19, so they are afraid that some of them might die too,” said Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector, citing her phone calls with contacts at the North Korean city of Hyesan. She said people who can afford it buy traditional medicine to deal with their fears.
Since North Korea admitted its so-called first domestic COVID-19 outbreak a week ago, it has been struggling to manage a deepening health crisis that has heightened public concerns over a virus it previously claimed it was keeping at bay to have.
The country’s pandemic response seems largely focused on isolating suspected patients. That’s perhaps all it can really do given the lack of vaccines, antiviral pills, intensive care units and other medical supplies that have kept millions of sick people in other countries alive.
North Korean health officials said Thursday that a rapidly spreading fever has killed 63 people and sickened about 2 million others since late April, while about 740,000 remain under quarantine. Earlier this week, North Korea announced that the total number of COVID-19 cases stood at 168, despite rising fever cases. Many foreign experts doubt the numbers, believing the extent of the outbreak is underreported to prevent public unrest that could damage Kim’s leadership.
State media said a million public officials had been mobilized to identify suspected patients. Kim Jong Un also ordered army medics deployed to help deliver medicines to pharmacies just before he visited drugstores in Pyongyang at dawn Sunday.
North Korea also uses state media — newspapers, state TV and radio — to provide tips on how to deal with the virus to citizens, most of whom have no access to the internet and foreign news.
“It is crucial that we find every person with fever symptoms so that they can be isolated and treated to fundamentally block the areas where the infectious disease could spread,” said Ryu Yong Chol, an official with the anti-virus headquarters of Pyongyang, on TV in the state Wednesday.
State television aired infomercials in which animated characters advised people to see a doctor if they had trouble breathing, were spitting up blood, or were fainting. They also explain what medications patients can take, including home remedies like honey tea. The country’s main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, advised people with mild symptoms to brew 4 to 5 grams of willow or honeysuckle leaves in hot water and drink them three times a day.
“Your policies don’t make any sense at all. It’s like the government is asking people to contact doctors only when they have trouble breathing, just before they die,” said former North Korean agriculture official Cho Chung Hui, who fled to South Korea in 2011. “My heart hurts when I think about my brother and sister in North Korea and their suffering.”
Kang, who runs a company that analyzes North Korea’s economy, said her contacts in Hyesan told her North Korean residents were asked to read Rodong Sinmun’s reports carefully on how the country is working to contain the outbreak.
Since May 12, North Korea has banned interregional travel, but it has not sought to impose stricter lockdowns along the lines of China. North Korea’s economy is vulnerable due to pandemic border closures and decades of mismanagement, which is why the country has encouraged the acceleration of agriculture, construction and other industrial activities. Kang said people in Hyesan still went to work.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights this week expressed concern about the fallout from North Korea’s quarantine measures, saying isolation and travel restrictions will have severe consequences for people who are already struggling to meet their basic needs, including obtaining adequate food.
“Children, nursing mothers, the elderly, the homeless and people living in more remote rural and border areas are particularly at risk,” the office said in a statement.
Defectors in South Korea say they are concerned for their loved ones in North Korea. They also suspect that COVID-19 had spread to North Korea even before the outbreak was formally acknowledged.
“My father and siblings are still in North Korea and I am very concerned for them because they have not been vaccinated and there is not much medicine there,” said Kang Na-ra, who fled to South Korea in late 2014. She said a sibling told her in recent phone calls that her grandmother died last September from pneumonia, which she believes was caused by COVID-19.
Defector Choi Song-juk said when her farmer sister in North Korea last called her in February, she said her daughter and many neighbors had contracted coronavirus-like symptoms, including a high fever, cough and sore throat. Choi said her sister pays realtors to arrange phone calls, but she hasn’t called lately, even though it’s around the time of year she’s running out of food and needs money transfers through a network of realtors. Choi said the split is likely related to antivirus restrictions on movements.
“I’m so sad. I need to reconnect with her because she has to be without food and picking wild vegetables,” said Choi, who left North Korea in 2015.
In recent years, Kim Jong Un has built some modern hospitals and improved medical systems, but critics say this is mostly for the country’s ruling elite and free socialist medical care is in tatters. New defectors say there are many domestically-made drugs on the markets now, but they have quality problems, so people prefer South Korean, Chinese and Russian drugs. But foreign medicines tend to be expensive, so poor people, who make up the majority of the North’s population, cannot afford them.
“In North Korea, when you’re sick, we often say you’re going to die,” Choi said.
Despite the outbreak, North Korea has not publicly responded to South Korean and US offers of medical assistance. World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday that the world body was “deeply concerned about the risk of further spread” in North Korea and the lack of information about the outbreak.
Choi Jung Hun, a former North Korean doctor who resettled in South Korea, suspects North Korea is using its response to the pandemic as a tool to promote Kim’s image as a leader who cares about the public and to cement internal unity . He says the country’s understated deaths could also be used as a propaganda tool.
“One day they will say they contained COVID-19. By comparing the death toll to that of the US and South Korea, they will say they have done a really good job and their anti-epidemic system is the best in the world,” said Choi, now a researcher at one with Korea University affiliated university institute in South Korea.