A young border guard (left) and an ordinary soldier wear masks and guard behind barbed wire. They are thin. Photographed in July 2021 from the Chinese side of Sinuiju City (ASIAPRESS).

North Korea is again tightening coronavirus-related restrictions in the northern part of the country, with schools and workplaces reverting to rotating schedules and the authorities conducting thorough disinfections and locking down areas with fever patients. There are also reports from the country that people are suffering from symptoms unseen before. (KANG Ji-won)

◆ Has a new variant hit North Korea?

Several days after the North Korean regime’s announcement of a COVID-19 outbreak on May 12, the authorities in Hyesan closed down workplaces and markets while claiming there had been a drastic rise in fever patients. Then the authorities implemented a complete lockdown of the city. The lockdown was lifted around one month later with the relaxation of restrictions on movement and the reopening of markets.

However, by mid-July, the authorities suddenly began tightening restrictions, according to an ASIAPRESS reporting partner in the city. Schools implemented rotating schedules, with students at all schools and in all grades starting their day either in the morning or afternoon. Workplaces implemented rotating schedules for their workers as well.

“The markets are open, but all the disinfectant being sprayed has turned their floors white. Anyone entering the markets must go through a temperature check,” the reporting partner said. “I’ve heard schools will begin their summer vacations earlier than the original August 1 start date. The government has provided three masks to each household free-of-charge.”

However, the North Korean government has not provided any official explanation for the intensifying of its disease control measures. ASIAPRESS’s reporting partner said that there are rumors among government officials that another variant of COVID-19 has appeared that is more infectious and causes different symptoms than past variants.

“The main symptoms (of COVID-19) included sore throats, coughing, nasal congestion and fever, but now there is word that there are people suffering from cramps and a little congestion,” said the reporting partner. “State media reported on the emergence of new variants throughout the world, so people are thinking that (the appearance of a new variant in North Korea) may be a possibility.”

◆ Some parts of Musan County are put under lockdown again

Disease control restrictions in Musan County, North Hamgyung Province, have also tightened as of late. An ASIAPRESS reporting partner reported on July 21 that, “There’s been a large number of fever patients, so the (authorities) said there was another surge of COVID-19 and locked down two districts and three neighborhood watch units. They plan to consider lifting the lockdown after watching the situation for 7-10 days. They are just handing out Chinese fever reducers to people with fevers. No one’s received medical treatment.”

From May, the number of fever patients surged in Yanggang and North Hamgyung provinces. A recent investigation by ASIAPRESS found that the surge, along with the widespread malnutrition and severe lack of medications, led to deaths of the elderly and people with preexisting conditions.

◆ Reporting partners express frustration at seemingly endless pandemic

ASIAPRESS explained to its reporting partners that new variants of COVID-19 have spread in Japan and South Korea and that the countries have experienced multiple wanes and surges in the pandemic. ASIAPRESS also told them that most citizens of those countries have received three shots of vaccine.

In response, the reporting partners generally expressed frustration that the COVID-19 pandemic will likely continue for the time being. They also expressed surprise that Japanese and South Korean people had received three shots of vaccine.

North Korean authorities continue to publish the daily number of fever patients. These numbers have fallen considerable since late June. While it’s unclear whether the numbers accurately reflect reality, the regime stated that there were around 120 fever patients on July 23.

※ ASIAPRESS communicates with reporting partners through Chinese cell phones smuggled into North Korea.