Masked students at Pyongyang University of Medicine attend a lecture on Covid-19 prevention protocols on April 22. Photo: AFP

SEOUL – Are authoritarian states masters of pandemic control, or just at hiding their numbers?

In a positive sign of virus control in an opaque state from which minimal information about the Covid-19 pandemic has leaked out, North Korea on Monday announced a phased re-opening of schools to start this month.

In June, the isolated nation will begin re-opening kindergartens, elementary, middle and high schools, a step that had been delayed since early April, according to South Korean TV news reports on Monday that cited North Korean state media.

Education authorities will provide thermometers at school gates and hand sanitizers will be provided inside the schools, the reports added.

North Korea, one of the most isolated states on earth, releases minimal data to the global community, making everything from its annual gross domestic product (GDP) to the whereabouts of its leader sources of speculation among Pyongyangologists in Seoul, Tokyo, Washington and elsewhere.

No infections reported

Though North Korea has so not, so far, reported a single infection or death from Covid-19, indications are that it has taken the viral disease – as it did earlier pandemics such as SARS – very seriously.

It was one of the first countries to close its borders as the pandemic spread, and in the early stages quarantined foreign residents in a compound in Pyongyang. Meanwhile, the state TV network has been running repeated messaging on how to prevent outbreaks.

While it is impossible to guess how many infections or deaths North Korea has suffered, there have been signals of outbreaks. Reports from Daily NK, a website that gathers information from citizens in the country via smuggled cellphones, has reported related matters including  the postponement of a major military parade and  soldiers suffering Covid-like symptoms.

The country has an underfunded healthcare system and a population that is significantly afflicted with malnutrition – a factor that weakens immune systems – but is systemically well equipped to deal with pandemics, experts say.

Police-state advantage

“They are an ideal police state and quarantine is an activity where police states tend to be very effective,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korean watcher at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “They can basically close down any area completely, and the population cannot do anything and will not challenge it.”

A high level of public discipline where the population does what it is told – such as wearing, and if necessary, making masks – exists. Contact tracing is enabled by an absence of privacy concerns and “a very efficient system of population control; if they need to trace somebody they will do it,” Lankov said.

Lankov, a Russian national, also noted that communist states – perhaps contrary to popular belief – prioritize public health. “In the North Korean system, the emphasis is on cheap, poorly trained and poorly paid doctors,” he said.

This may not enable high-quality medical care, but it does grant the country a surprisingly large pool of medical professionals.

According to data collated by the World Bank, North Korea has 3.7 doctors per 100,000 people, more than marginally richer Nepal, with 0.7, and even more than vastly richer South Korea, with 2.3, and Japan, with 2.4.

Moreover, two analogous one-party states in the region – Vietnam and China – appear from observable activities, metrics and data to have handled the outbreak effectively, although many observers question the veracity of their numbers.

According to worldmeters, China has suffered 4,634 deaths for a mortality rate of three dead per million people, while Vietnam claims to have suffered zero Covid-19 deaths.

Meanwhile, freer states in the region, despite handling the pandemic far more effectively than Western nations, have not done as well as nearby authoritarian states appear to have done.

Japan has suffered 891 dead for a ratio of seven dead per million, and South Korea has lost 271 dead, with a mortality rate of five per million.

South Korea treads carefully

Meanwhile, south of the DMZ, South Korea is in the midst of a phased reopening of its schools. A range of classes, starting with high-school seniors, reopened over the last two Wednesdays and further classes are set to reopen this week.

Even so, despite a range of precautions – temperature checks are taken at school entrances, classrooms are socially distanced and movements are restricted around school campuses – there have been hiccups.

Schools in locations where cluster infections have emerged, such as Incheon and Bucheon, have been closed and Seoul-area schools have limited returning class numbers to one-third of pupils per day. The remaining two-thirds of students do their learning remotely.

With only 11,503 cases and 271 deaths from Covid-19 nationwide as of Monday, South Korea is widely seen as a model for pandemic control.

It pioneered widespread testing and has adopted a high-tech system of contact tracing based on integrated databases – immigration, police, credit card firms, etc – which generates big data that is mined by AI.

Later this week, the country is expected to roll out a personal QR code system for all people entering churches, eateries, bars and nightclubs. The system is now being tested.

Since South Korea announced the easing of an already relaxed social distancing regime in early May, multiple clusters have emerged.

About 270 people were infected after visiting nightclubs in the district of Itaewon, 112 cases have been linked to a logistics center southwest of Seoul and as of Monday, 23 cases were traced to 13 small churches around the greater Seoul area, which includes its surrounding province and the port and airport city of Incheon.

In response, the government has mandated mask use on all forms of public transport and re-closed libraries, galleries and museums, but is broadly sticking to its eased quarantine system of “everyday social distancing.”

Even so, foreign residents including investors, businesspersons, educators and those married to locals have been irked by the recent exit and entry restrictions aimed at curbing non-essential travel outside the country that took effect on June 1.