North Korea may declare COVID-19 victory

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In a photo provided by the North Korean government, leader Kim Jong Un visits a pharmacy May 15 in Pyongyang. (Associated Press)

It’s been only a month since North Korea acknowledged having a COVID-19 outbreak, after steadfastly denying any cases for more than two years. But already it may be preparing to declare victory.

According to state media, North Korea has avoided the mass deaths many expected in a nation with one of the world’s worst healthcare systems, little or no access to vaccines and what outsiders see as a long record of ignoring the suffering of its people.

North Korea’s official virus numbers, experts believe, have as much to do with propaganda to boost leader Kim Jong Un as they do with a true picture of what’s happening in the country, and there’s widespread doubt about their accuracy.

What’s clear, though, is that the daily updates from state media make it appear inevitable that the nation will defeat a virus that has killed more than 6 million people around the world. According to the official tally, cases in North Korea are plummeting, and while 18% of the nation’s 26 million people reportedly have had symptoms that outsiders suspect were from COVID-19, fewer than 100 have died.

The South Korean government and other observers believe North Korea may soon declare that it has beaten the virus. This accomplishment will be linked, of course, to Kim’s strong and clever guidance.

However, a victory lap isn’t a foregone conclusion. Such a proclamation would deprive Kim of a useful tool to control the public and could open the government to humiliation if cases continue, experts say.

“There are two sides to such a declaration,” said Moon Seong Mook, an analyst with the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy. “If North Korea says that COVID-19 has gone, it can emphasize that Kim Jong Un is a great leader who has overcome the pandemic. But in doing so, it can’t maintain the powerful restrictions that it uses to control its people in the name of containing COVID-19.”

Outsiders suspect that Kim is using the outbreak to boost internal unity at a time when many of his people are weary of more than two years of draconian curbs that have hurt their livelihoods.

Many signs, at least in public statements, point to a declaration of success in dealing with a virus that has confounded the richest countries in the world.

In the initial stage of the outbreak, Kim described a “great upheaval” as daily fever cases — North Korea rarely identifies them as COVID-19, presumably because it lacks test kits — reached about 400,000. Now, however, the leader is suggesting that the outbreak has peaked, with his health officials maintaining the country’s widely disputed fatality rate of 0.002%, the lowest in the world.

Outside experts wrestle with determining the true state of misery in North Korea, which has banned nearly all foreign journalists, aid workers and diplomats since early 2020.

North Korea is widely believed to be manipulating its death toll to prevent harm to Kim. It might also have exaggerated the number of earlier fever cases to boost vigilance against the virus and draw stronger public support for authorities’ pandemic controls. North Korea has recently reported about 17,000 to 30,000 new fever cases each day, for a total of 4.7 million. It says — to widespread disbelief — that only 73 have died.

Whatever the real situation is, outside monitoring groups say they haven’t detected signs of anything catastrophic in North Korea.

“If a large number of people had died, there would have been some pieces of evidence, but there hasn’t been any,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University in Seoul. During a famine in the 1990s, for instance, rumors of widespread death and abandoned bodies spread into China and South Korea.

Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector in Seoul who runs a company analyzing the North’s economy, said three of her contacts in the city of Hyesan told her during phone calls that most of their family members have suffered suspected COVID-19 symptoms. But they told her that none of their relatives, neighbors or acquaintances have died of COVID-19, though they’ve heard rumors of deaths in other towns.

“During an earlier phone conversation, one of my sources cried a little bit when she said she was worried that some bad things could happen in her family [because of COVID-19]. But now she and others have become stable and sometimes laugh when we talk on the phone,” Kang said.

During a recent meeting of the ruling party, Kim said the country’s pandemic fight has passed the stage of “unexpected serious crisis.” State media have urged the public to rally behind Kim to overcome the pandemic completely.

Cho Joonghoon, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which oversees relations with the North, told reporters last week that Kim’s regime may announce this month that its COVID-19 crisis has been resolved.

Nam, the South Korean professor, said the outbreak appears to have eased in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, but will likely continue in rural areas, where people with symptoms are venturing outdoors because they rely on market activities for a living and have no access to public rations.

“I think North Korea will declare a victory over the pandemic a bit later. It would lose face if it proclaimed victory too soon and new patients cropped up afterward,” Nam said.

Kang, the defector, said North Korean residents in Hyesan abide by the government’s pandemic orders, and few fever patients leave their homes during quarantine periods.

Because North Korea believes that the pandemic, U.N. sanctions and other economic difficulties will continue, there’s little chance it will lift major restrictions soon, said Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.

“The United States and other countries with advanced healthcare and medical systems haven’t declared an end to COVID-19. So North Korea will also find it much more difficult to do so,” Lim said.

The global vaccine alliance Gavi said earlier this month that it understands that North Korea has accepted an offer of vaccines from China. But North Korea has ignored offers of medical support from South Korea and the United States.

Despite its COVID-19 outbreak, North Korea has continued test-firing missiles this year. But it hasn’t carried out a widely expected nuclear test, possibly because of worries about a backlash from people still struggling with the virus.

North Korea may officially declare victory over the virus when its daily fever cases and the pandemic situation in neighboring China ease significantly, said Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKhealth.org, a website focusing on health issues in North Korea. But he said such a declaration won’t mean much, because North Korea likely acknowledged the outbreak last month only after determining it to be manageable.

“According to North Korea, it defeats everything. It doesn’t acknowledge things that it can’t overcome. It always wins absolutely, no matter whether it faces military, economic or pandemic difficulties,” Ahn said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.