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North Korea boosts measures to stem Covid-19 outbreak

Commuters wearing face masks ride a tramcar in Pyongyang
Commuters wearing face masks ride a tramcar in Pyongyang AFP

The authorities in Pyongyang have increased efforts against the spread of the coronavirus, including quarantine, “lock-down, inspection and sterilisation” in a move that suggests that North Korea has been badly hit by the virus.

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In a rare acknowledgement that North Korea has been affected by the Covid-19 epidemic, the official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on 8 May that “preventive measures are being steadily taken’’ against the “widespread malignant virus infection that has become a world disaster”.

Health authorities in the country seem to be struggling as the Non-Permanent Central Public Health Guidance Committee is reported to be reviewing “some deviations in the state emergency anti-epidemic work”. No explanation is given as to what these “deviations” might involve.

While the Cabinet Report approved by the Supreme People’s Assembly in March claimed that no single case of Covid-19 had been reported in the country at that stage, the measures described by KCNA on Friday appear to suggest that the situation has changed.

People wearing protective face masks commute amid concerns over the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Pyongyang, North Korea March 30, 2020, in this photo released by Kyodo. Picture taken March 30, 2020.
People wearing protective face masks commute amid concerns over the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Pyongyang, North Korea March 30, 2020, in this photo released by Kyodo. Picture taken March 30, 2020. © REUTERS - KYODO

“The emergency anti-epidemic headquarters is intensifying control and guidance on quarantine, lock-down, inspection and sterilisation to thoroughly check the inroads of Covid-19 while making exact demands for preventing any factors that may lead to other infectious diseases at the turn of the seasons,” the dispatch says.

The dispatch coincides with a report saying that North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un extended congratulations to China’s President Xi Jinping on his “success in preventing the Covid-19 infection”, “highly appreciating that he is seizing a chance of victory in the war against the unprecedented epidemic”. It ended by sending “militant greetings to every member of the Communist Party of China”.

Relations between China and North Korea have experienced a renaissance in recent months
Relations between China and North Korea have experienced a renaissance in recent months KCNA VIA KNS/AFP/File

The dispatch does not carry any pictures. The message comes after weeks of speculation about Kim Jong-un’s whereabouts were suddenly addressed by images showing him on a visit to a fertilizer factory on 2 May, the day after a North Korean defector living in the south had declared Kim “dead” with 99 percent probability.

Kim’s message also comes at a time when China faces increasing international criticism over its handling of the epidemic.

The United States and Australia are pushing for an inquiry into the origins of the virus. China opposes such an investigation claiming it would “only lead to finger pointing”.

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