North Korea has successfully fenced itself off from the world - but the hunger for ourside information is so keen, media is finding holes to enter. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to grip the world, countries are scrambling to effectively respond to this invisible enemy. One of the countries widely lauded as a model example for others to follow has been South Korea.

Typically, information is significantly more sparse regarding its notoriously opaque neighbor up north.

While Pyongyang continues to insist it has zero Covid-19 cases, minimal information has appeared regarding how the government is handling the situation and how the virus has really been affecting the everyday lives of North Korean citizens.

However, by piecing together official information from the regime, from state media and reports from ordinary citizens inside the country, a picture can be painted.

Information on the ground can be obtained from citizens supplied with smuggled Chinese cellphones. Testimonies are gathered on most days by Daily NK, a South Korea-based publication that operates under the auspices of Unification Media Group, a Seoul-based non-profit organization working to promote freedom of information within North Korea.

While the Kim regime will never win the kudos South Korea has gained for dealing with the pandemic, indications are that the crisis in the country is, in fact being contained – thanks to a combination of strict, authoritarian controls and some public ingenuity.

Closed for business

The first response of the North Korean government was to close its borders with China. The consequences of this continue to be felt to this day, given that the vast majority of trade the isolated country engages in moves across this frontier.

Cross-border trade officially came to a standstill on January 26, causing a massive blow to local markets and an ongoing shortage of goods. With nothing coming in from China, markets started running out of supplies to sell and whatever was available suddenly became much more expensive. The price of flour, for instance, increased by nearly 50% in days.

Panic ensued; rumors of looming economic disaster spread. Some locals from two northern provinces even opined to Daily NK that the closing of the border has had a worse effect on the economy than international sanctions. 

The government has since implemented price control measures to attempt to stabilize prices, but markets are still struggling due to the border blockade.

There are signs of hope. Given the improved situation across the border, particularly in the Chinese city of Dandong through which most trade to North Korea passes, cross-border trade may resume in the coming weeks.

DIY solutions

Smugglers and merchants who used to work in border areas have had to adapt to this new way of life and find different ways of providing for their families. One choice, arrived at based at least partly on misinformation and rumors, has been to take up drug smuggling.

One such rumor relates to the use of tuberculosis medicine. Many have started believing that such drugs can help combat Covid-19  on the misunderstanding that the novel coronavirus can, like TB, be transmitted through the air, from whence it causes infections in the lungs.

(In fact it spreads via droplets sprayed when infected people cough or sneeze.) With demand rising, the sale of such drugs on the black market has become increasingly common.

Besides TB medicine, ordinary North Koreans are trying other unconventional, “Do It Yourself” methods to keep the novel coronavirus at bay.

Given the shortage of disinfectants and cleaning supplies, many people make their own by using ingredients like sulfur, vinegar, hot water, salt water and lye. Others are also making special teas with herbs and plants, such as ginseng, which they hope will boost their immune systems. 

Information and containment

Pyongyang has been trying to counter fake news and rumors about the virus by launching its own Covid-19 education campaign. The country’s main newspaper Rodong Shinmun has been publishing articles almost daily with information about the virus, including advice to citizens on how to protect themselves. And TV broadcasts about the virus are increasingly common.

Citizens are being urged to wear masks at all times when they go out, and can be punished if caught not doing so. Washing hands frequently and using vinegar to disinfect surfaces has also been promoted by the regime

One tool the regime has at its disposal is uniquely powerful social control mechanisms.  

As soon as news of the virus reached Pyongyang, the regime began taking strict and swift measures to quarantine anyone with flu-like symptoms. Disease control officials were first deployed to the border province of Ryanngyang — the poorest in North Korea — on January 31. There, they inspected medical and quarantine facilities and provided guidance to local doctors.

By the end of February, over 7,000 people reportedly had been quarantined throughout the country. But quarantine measures have not resulted in zero deaths despite the official stance of the Kim regime, sources say.

Death reports

The first death caused by the virus was that of a Pyongyang woman who died on January 27, according to Daily NK sources. In fact, a government source told Daily NK in late February that over 20 deaths had been linked to coronavirus-like symptoms since January. All patients were diagnosed with acute pneumonia.

To prevent more people from succumbing to the disease, the government is continuing to ramp up containment measures. Those not wearing face masks are no longer allowed  to use public transportation and the temperatures of passengers are being taken before they board trains or long-distance buses.

Authorities are also doing their best to prevent any vehicles or people from transiting from the border regions to the interior of the country and vice-versa. In order to further enforce social distancing, the government ordered all schools to close for a month starting February 20, with the closures now having been extended until April 15.

National priorities

The regime is trying to keep the elite as secure as possible. For example, members of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party – part of North Korea’s top 1% – have received packages of domestically manufactured face masks.

North Korean trading companies in China  have been smuggling face masks and medical supplies across the border to make up for a nationwide shortage. Even though the border is officially closed it appears that this kind of trade is either condoned or possibly even ordered by state officials – albeit, with strict disinfection methods in place.

According to Daily NK sources, around 100,000 face masks, 4,500 protective suits and quantities of necessary drugs come into the country via these channels approximately every 10 days.  

The government has also been keeping a close eye on any possible Covid-19 cases in the military. Leaders of military units have even been threatened with punishment if they fail to follow proper disease control procedures. 

But despite these efforts, 180 soldiers died  in January and February and approximately 3,700 soldiers are under quarantine, according to a military-commissioned report obtained via a Daily NK source inside North Korea’s military on March 6.

The report detailed the number of soldiers who had died after suffering from high fevers stemming from pneumonia, tuberculosis, asthma or colds.

Out of the woods?

Despite the lack of concrete data, this writer believes that North Korea’s strict and relatively swift measures to contain the virus have helped prevent what could have been an epic disaster.

Indications are that the Kim regime has done a surprisingly good job containing the spread of the virus – for now, at least. It’s also worth noting that the measures taken to curb the spread of Covid-19 are much stricter and were implemented much sooner than those aimed at the previous SARS and Ebola viruses.

Still, the full extent of the impact of these measures remains to be seen. Even if North Korea is able to avoid a pandemic, it will be faced with other challenges, mainly concerning its economy.

North Korea maintains it has zero cases and will most likely continue portraying itself as a strong country, with its ongoing emphasis on self-reliance. This strategy has been on full display through the recent missile tests as well as the military preparations currently underway to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Workers Party of Korea in October.

While it’s still too early to judge whether North Korea’s Covid-19 strategy has succeeded, damage for now seems minimal. With China slowly recovering and strict containment measures still in place domestically, the threat of the virus no longer seems as daunting as it did two months ago.

Gabriela Bernal is the founder of The Peninsula Report, and is a translator at Daily NK. You can find her on Twitter: @gabrielabbernal.