A top U.S. military general in South Korea has stated that the Pentagon is “fairly certain” that North Korea has coronavirus infections despite claims from North Korea that the country has been unaffected by the outbreak. Although claims that North Korea has cases are unconfirmed, the history of the country’s lack of international transparency and the proximity the nation has with China and South Korea; (two of the five nations that have been most heavily affected by the outbreak) it is likely that the virus has already spread or will spread shortly.
North Korea directly borders both South Korean and China. According to the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE), China has the highest number of confirmed cases with 81,000, whereas South Korea has over 8,000 confirmed cases and has the greatest number of cases next to China, Italy, and Iran.
North Korea is not prepared for a medical emergency of this magnitude. The country’s health-care system is underfunded, and lacking in proper medical supplies, resources, and training. The public health system in North Korea is dire. According to a report released by Amnesty international, hospitals are barely-functioning and lack the medicine and equipment to treat epidemics caused by malnutrition, which has plagued the country in the last two decades.
The state-operated economy is unable to feed its population and the country refuses to receive food aid from the international community. According to the same report, North Korea spends less on healthcare than any other country in the world. Many patients are forced to pay out of their own pockets. Doctors are often paid off in cigarettes, alcohol or food for basic consultations and are bribed for tests and surgeries.
Many North Koreans circumvent doctors completely and resort to consulting with and buying medicine from market vendors. Thousands of North Koreans are estimated to have starved to death, and with the debilitating food shortages caused by government policy, many North Koreans survive from “wild foods” often eating grass and tree bark. These conditions have caused widespread illness and little government effort to treat them.
The combination of these factors creates an environment where the COVID-19 pandemic could devastate the population. There are over 162,600 confirmed cases and over 6,000 deaths worldwide caused by the disease with no certified vaccine. If the virus does reach North Korea, it could likely decimate all sectors of its economy and have a catastrophic effect on the population.
Pyongyang is well aware of the threat the outbreak has on its borders and has taken precautions. The country has sealed its borders, suspended all tourism, quarantined all foreign nationals, shut down public sites and closed all public schools. These precautions have so far kept the number of infections to zero according to government officials, but U.S. and South Korean news media have reported multiple suspected cases in the country.
The outbreak from South Korea isn’t too worrisome as there is a 150-mile-long demilitarized zone where entry points are guarded by thousands of soldiers. The 880-mile border between North Korea and China is far more concerning as the border has little protection and goods from both sides are smuggled across frequently. If the virus hasn’t already crossed the border, there is a high chance that it will in the near future.
The bordering Chinese provinces, Liaoning and Jilin have seen the number of confirmed cases triple since February, making it’s spread to North Korea increasingly likely as the number of cases continues to grow in China. If the virus spreads to North Korea it is likely to spread rapidly. The largest demographic for transmission is amongst those who have severe underlying health conditions making the virus easily transmittable to 43% of malnourished North Koreans. If the virus spreads to North Korea it could potentially devastate the population and collapse the North Korean regime.