From Hyonhee Shin and Minwoo Park
SEOUL (Reuters) – Every day at 9:30 a.m. this week, a low-voiced official has appeared on North Korean television to report the number of people with fevers and new deaths, and to explain measures to contain North Korea’s first confirmed COVID-19 to stop. 19 outbreak.
Little-known official Ryu Yong Chol has become the public face of the isolated country’s fight against the epidemic, the equivalent of US COVID-19 czar Dr. Anthony Fauci or the director of South Korea’s Disease Prevention Agency, Jeong Eun-kyeong.
For more than two years, North Korea, with its sealed borders, has not reported a single case of COVID, leading skeptics abroad to suggest that this is more a reflection of its traditional state secrets than a true absence of the coronavirus.
North Korea has changed course since confirming the initial outbreak and declaring a state of emergency last week. Apparently taking a page from many other countries’ playbooks, it publishes detailed data on the spread of the virus and advice on how to avoid it.
Ryu works for the state epidemic prevention headquarters, KCNA has reported, which appears to be newly set up to fight COVID.
Like its South Korean equivalent, the North Korean agency holds daily briefings chaired by Ryu, but without questions from reporters.
Ryu, dressed in a suit and horn-rimmed glasses, comes across as sensible and to-the-point unusual qualities on North Korea’s tightly controlled television, better known for the theatrics of its announcers and cajoling military commanders.
“We should step up efforts to control and isolate every infected person without exception to thoroughly eliminate all areas where the infectious disease can spread,” Ryu said Friday, urging to “avoid loopholes.”
North Korea has reported 2,241,610 people with fevers and 65 deaths among its 25 million population. There is a lack of testing capacity and it has not been specified how many of these people have been shown to have COVID.
TAMING THE BREAKOUT
Little is known about Ryu, including his medical qualifications.
In a July 2017 state media report, a director-general of the eponymous health ministry accused South Korea of planning “a biochemical terrorist attack” against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. South Korea denied the allegation.
An official at South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which is responsible for North Korean affairs, said Ryu previously held the position, although it’s not clear if he is the person quoted in the report.
North Korea’s new media strategy of apparent openness about COVID is consistent with a push by Kim to build a “normal state” by improving transparency and acknowledging shortcomings, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“He can also encourage people to report symptoms and join efforts to tame the outbreak, where public participation is crucial,” Yang said.
“There is some propaganda value as the numbers are relatively lower than those reported elsewhere,” Yang said.
Another Unification Ministry official said North Korea may have learned lessons from other countries and is releasing facts and figures as part of efforts to “mobilize all available resources” given the urgency of the outbreak.
But Yang pointed out that the death toll appears to be significantly lower than elsewhere, and said the death toll may have been underreported to forestall political troubles.
“Releasing the death toll could require political considerations as an increase in deaths is likely to fuel people’s fears and worsen public sentiment,” he said.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Minwoo Park and Sunghyuk An; Editing by Robert Birsel)