A military vehicle sprays disinfectant on a road as part of preventive measures against the spread of Covid-19 in Daegu on February 27, 2020. Photo: AFP

For the second day running, South Korea saw a record daily increase of newly confirmed cases of Covid-19 as the number leaped to 505 cases on Thursday, making a total of 1,766 nationwide.

The country also recorded its 13th fatality from the outbreak on Thursday, according to the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention. South Korea is now the nation most impacted by the virus after China, where it originated.

Meanwhile, the United Nations urged more transparency and communication from North Korea, which has, Asia Times has learned, placed Pyongyang under a virtual lockdown, meaning foreign aid agencies and embassies cannot gain a clear picture of the situation in the country.

Expected surge

Thursday’s spike in numbers was not unexpected.

The members of a Christian religious sect, Shincheonji, which is at the heart of the national outbreak, started undergoing nationwide tests by authorities as of Wednesday. The church had handed a list of 212,000 church members to the government on Tuesday.

And numbers may surge further in the coming days.

Vice-Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said authorities were expected to complete virus tests on Shincheonji members in Daegu, where the church has its headquarters, within two-three days. Tests on about 1,300 Shincheonji members with symptoms were now complete, Kim said, according to Yonhap.

The majority of new cases continue to center around the southeastern city and its surrounding province – notably in a mental hospital in Cheongdo, just south of Daegu.

South Korean confirmed Covid-19 cases

Wednesday, February 19: Total 51 cases.

Thursday, February 20: New cases: 53. Total 104

Friday, February 21: New cases: 100. Total 204

Saturday, February 22: New cases: 229. Total 433

Sunday, February 23: New cases: 169. Total 602

Monday, February 24:  New cases: 231. Total 833

Tuesday, February 25: New cases: 144. Total: 977

Wednesday, February 26: New cases: 284. Total: 1261

Thursday, February 27: New cases: 505. Total: 1,766

Data: Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention

According to a panel of clinicians gathered by respected broadcaster JTBC on Wednesday, the virus in South Korea is likely to peak about March 20, with perhaps 20,000 patients – but most will show only mild symptoms, with home quarantine being sufficient.

Related developments

Also on Thursday, the South Korean and US militaries agreed to postpone joint military drills set for March, due to the Covid-19 situation. Both the South Korean armed forces and US Forces Korea have confirmed cases within their ranks.

Vernacular media raised a warning scare over the health of President Moon Jae-in, who traveled to Daegu this week when it was subsequently discovered that the secretary of one of the officials he had met with had tested positive for the virus.

However, the Blue House told Asia Times on Thursday that the official has since tested negative, so “the situation is over.”

Meanwhile, the Bank of Korea kept its cool on Thursday, maintaining its key interest rate steady at 1.25% despite a broad market consensus that it would cut the rate by 0.25% to boost an economy being hammered hard by the virus.

The other Korea

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, urged North Korea and the international community to join forces to prevent a Covid-19 outbreak in the country.

North Korea, already one of the most isolated nations on earth, has closed its borders. The country suffers from a dilapidated medical system as well as a population with weakened immune systems due to years of malnutrition. It is unclear whether the country has the appropriate technologies and processes to identify virus patients, though it is assessed as having extremely powerful quarantine capabilities.

In a press release sent to foreign reporters, Quintana said he “supports the efforts taken by authorities to prevent an outbreak, including strict controls on entry into the country and seeking assistance from UN agencies.”

State media has also urged citizens not to eat out, and the country is postponing the re-opening of educational institutes after the winter break, according to AFP.

However, Quintana added that Pyongyang “… should allow full and unimpeded access to medical experts and humanitarian actors, and relax restrictions on access to information. Further isolation of the country is not the answer.”

The latter comment may be a reference to the highly unusual situation pertaining in Pyongyang’s diplomatic and overseas aid community.

“Recent measures taken by the North Korean regime are very abnormal,” Thae Yong-ho, a high-profile defector, told foreign reporters in Seoul on February 19.

“The first thing, is Pyongyang blocked all embassies and NGOs and international organizations,” Thae said. “Then, the foreign embassies’ staff were asked to stay in their premises with no access to hotels, coffee shops and shops … free movement is stopped.”

A source related to a foreign organization with an office in Pyongyang – who, like most such sources, insisted on anonymity in order not to compromise his organization’s operations in the country – confirmed to Asia Times the accuracy of Thae’s observations.

The source added that North Korean staff – most of whom live off-site – were also being ordered to remain in the foreign compound.

The situation was at first a temporary two-week measure established on February 4, but has since been extended to early March, the source said, citing an order sent to foreign resident organizations by Pyongyang’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Though there has been no official announcement of coronavirus cases from a regime that is noted for extreme opacity, a number of South Korean media, citing anonymous sources, have alleged that there are, in fact, cases inside the country.