It was one of the first countries to close its borders, halt travel by train and air and eventually prohibit almost all cross-border traffic with China. While many experts question whether these measures were truly effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 to North Korea, the Kim regime has at the very least, demonstrated a more robust strategy for handling this pandemic than it has during past epidemics.
For the Kim regime, prevention has been the key objective. On January 21, just after cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the US and South Korea, North Korea began notifying tourism companies that tourism would be suspended. Days later it banned all travel in and out of the country, suspended flights from China and Russia and instituted 30-day mandatory quarantines for incoming foreigners and diplomats.
For an economy heavily dependent on tourism (especially from China) and cross-border trade, these moves were significant and risked huge economic losses for an already struggling economy, but demonstrated how severe the regime viewed the situation. Schools were also reportedly closed until April 15, and high-profile events such as the Pyongyang Marathon were postponed.
In addition to these early, “high-intensity” prevention strategies, the Kim regime engaged in a public awareness campaign not seen during past epidemics. Information about the risks of the disease was distributed both via state media and local briefings, and for the first time, reportedly even included medical professionals in the discussion. These briefings were also used to inform the public on ways to help prevent contracting and spreading the disease, encouraging good hygiene and social distancing, and communicated efforts the government was taking to mitigate the situation including frequent disinfection campaigns and barring use of public transportation unless wearing protective clothing, such as face masks.
However, despite these efforts to prevent or mitigate the effects of COVID-19, North Korea’s public healthcare system is presumably strained. In normal times, the country experiences widespread shortages of medicines and medical supplies and often inadequate provision of electricity and clean water to medical facilities, especially outside of Pyongyang. Global shortages of critical supplies such as face masks and respirators used to treat infected patients do not bode well for North Korea’s ability to handle an outbreak should it occur. Kim Jong Un recently spoke at a hospital groundbreaking ceremony, admitting that even the capital, Pyongyang, does not have “modern medical service” establishments. The state has also communicated unsubstantiated ways to curb the spread of COVID-19, including reports of using burdock root as a cure or using salt water to prevent infection.
Serious questions loom about the North’s capacity to even test for the disease, especially on a large scale. Pyongyang reportedly accepted 1,500 test kits from Moscow in February, and the United Nations has granted sanctions exemptions to deliver more kits and equipment. Both the US and South Korea have also offered humanitarian assistance and cooperation, but have not yet received a response. As seen in South Korea’s success in containing the spread of COVID-19, early and widespread testing is key to effective prevention and treatment of the disease; countries like the US and Italy who did not prepare for such a strategy now struggle with an overwhelmed healthcare system and higher mortality rates. Presumably, inadequate testing to scale can have similar consequences for North Korea.
While the Kim regime has attempted to demonstrate transparency in its handling of COVID-19, many experts question whether the public statements by the regime truly reflect the situation on the ground as unconfirmed reports cite numerous suspected cases and deaths. North Korea’s continued conduct of military drills and missile testing, along with commencing construction of a new hospital in Pyongyang, seem to be attempts to show that North Korea is business as usual. However, global struggles with COVID-19 raise huge concerns for North Korea’s ability to respond to a large-scale outbreak without massive deaths, if it’s not struggling with this challenge already. And economic disruptions to supply chains, retail, tourism and industries caused by global pandemic stand to hit North Korea just as hard.