When a defecting South Korean maritime official tried to swim across the border in 2020, the North Korean navy shot him and burnt his body at sea for fear he was contaminated with coronavirus.
Five months later, a group of Russian diplomats and their families were forced to propel themselves and their luggage across the North Korean border on a hand-pushed railway trolley.
Both episodes illustrate the extreme lengths to which Kim Jong Un, who sealed the country’s borders in February 2020, was prepared to go to prevent his unvaccinated and undernourished nation from coming into contact with Covid-19.
But faith in that strategy of complete isolation was shattered last week when North Korean health authorities admitted their first cases of the virus. Since then, almost 2mn cases in the country of 25mn people have been reported, although only a handful of patients have officially tested positive for coronavirus.
“The regime spent so much time denying that they’d had even a single case, so it’s quite shocking for them to admit it in the way that they have,” said Jenny Town, director of the 38 North programme at the Stimson Center think-tank in Washington. “This shows just how serious the situation is.”
On Thursday, North Korean state media reported 262,270 new cases of an unidentified “fever” and one death, bringing the official death toll to 63.
According to state broadcaster Korean Central Television, as of May 15, there were 240,459 people treated for the “malignant virus” in the capital Pyongyang, accounting for roughly 7 per cent of the city’s population.
KCT also reported outbreaks in the southern city Kaesong near the demilitarised zone separating North and South Korea, and in the northern city Rason, near the border with Russia.
“After two and half years, we know the consequences of outbreaks in unvaccinated populations,” said Jerome Kim, director-general of the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul.
“Hopefully, North Korea will be able to avail itself of the tests, drugs, equipment and vaccines needed to avert a looming humanitarian, economic [and] biological crises, as rampant spread may also be associated with the generation of viral variants.”
North Korea is one of only two countries not to have initiated a Covid-19 vaccination programme.
Until last week’s announcement that an unspecified number of people in Pyongyang had contracted the Omicron variant, North Korean authorities had refused to acknowledge even a single case within the country’s borders.
Internal propaganda trumpeted the regime’s success in protecting its people, comparing its achievements favourably with the efforts of neighbouring South Korea.
The North Korean government has not identified the source of the outbreak. But Go Myong-hyun, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said that the regime had shown signs of complacency in recent months.
“North Korea had already resumed some trade with China after almost two years of strict border control measures,” said Go. “Then last month it gathered large crowds in Pyongyang for a military parade which became a superspreader event. It was a perfect storm.”
Kim, who last week started wearing a face mask during regular public appearances, has castigated officials for their “immaturity” and “non-positive attitude, slackness and non-activity” in their handling of the outbreak.
At a politburo meeting this week, Kim hinted at a leadership purge, declaring that the government “must eradicate weak links and strengthen the health quarantine system”.
According to state newspaper Rodong Sinmun, Kim added that the crisis “presents a test in order to discern the good and bad parts of all our nation’s systems”.
Town said this was Kim’s “way of trying to demonstrate to the people that he has identified the problem, and is dealing with incompetence at the lower levels. He seems to want to show that he’s addressing the issue head on.”
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said this week that North Korea was still refusing offers of vaccines, medicines, tests and technical support.
“The WHO is deeply concerned at the risk of further spread [in North Korea],” said Ghebreyesus.
According to local press reports in South Korea, aircraft operated by North Korea’s national carrier this week flew to China to pick up pandemic supplies and deliver them to Pyongyang.
The Chinese foreign ministry said last week that China was “ready to go all-out to provide support and assistance to North Korea in fighting the virus”.
Hanna Song of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul expressed doubts about the North Korean health system’s capacity to administer treatment.
“Before the pandemic, medicines would be sourced through the black market, brought over the border from China or through international aid organisations,” said Song.
“North Korean escapees who worked as doctors and nurses tell us that even in 2019 they would have to reuse things like syringes, gauze and bandages,” she added. “We can only imagine how low supplies must be now after over two years of border closures, and the conditions under which they will be operating.”
But Go said humanitarian concerns did not top the leadership’s list of priorities.
“Accepting vaccines and inoculating the population would show to North Koreans that, like in China, the regime’s zero-Covid policy is an abject failure,” said Go.
“They are concerned about regime stability and the health of the top leadership circle, which are intertwined. They want to prevent the public from panicking because it could lead to a loss of social control.”
Town added that it was “an overstatement to say that the North Korean government doesn’t care about the needs of the people at all. But there is a hierarchy, and the regime and elites come first.”