This photo shows the overreaching nature of North Korea’s COVID-19 measures. Soldiers guarding the border near the Tumen River are wearing hazmat suits while repairing a levy. Taken on the Chinese side of the border in October 2020 near Hyesan, Yanggang Province.

After officially acknowledging a COVID-19 outbreak in May, the Kim Jong-un regime declared victory over the pandemic on August 10. Following the declaration, the regime claimed that there have been no further COVID-19 cases and significantly relaxed restrictions on movement. What, however, are the realities in the country? ASIAPRESS asked reporting partners in the northern part of the country in late August about the current situation. In this article, ASIAPRESS provides testimony from two reporting partners in Yanggang Province. (KANG Ji-won / ISHIMARU Jiro)

◆ Interviews with two reporting partners in Yanggang Province

Following the declaration of victory at a national emergency quarantine review meeting on August 10, North Korean authorities have stopped releasing the number of “fever patients due to the malicious virus” that had been published on a daily basis. On August 25, North Korea reported that four suspected fever patients had emerged in Yanggang Province; however, the regime explained that these cases were due to influenza, not the coronavirus.

ASIAPRESS conducted interviews with two people living in Hyesan about the situation in North Korea following the victory declaration. Based on surveys conducted by ASIAPRESS up until now, many provincial cities are not conducting examinations to see whether people have come down with COVID-19; instead, they are judging whether people have gotten the virus based on whether they have fevers or other symptoms such as coughing.

◆ People don’t know what PCR tests are

“A,” who lives in the downtown of a city in Yanggang Province, works as a businessperson.


―― Kim Jong-un declared that North Korea has been victorious over COVID-19. Are there any fever patients anymore?

“The number of people with fevers has decreased a great deal, but they still exist. The authorities just treat them as people with colds, however. I haven’t heard of anyone with severe symptoms. Already there’s the perceptions that most people have already gotten COVID-19 at least once.”


―― Are people put into isolation if they get a fever?

The criteria for being isolated isn’t clear. People are told to self-isolate if they have a fever. People avoid going outside if they have coughing and a fever because if they do, they may be punished (forced isolation, other punishment). In our neighborhood watch unit, we’ve had suspected coronavirus cases emerge in two households recently, but the local doctor just said they were ordinary colds.”
※ Neighborhood watch units, or inminban, are North Korea’s lowest level administrative unit and are typically made up of 20-30 households.


―― Are PCR tests being conducted?

“They don’t do those kinds of tests. All they do is take people’s temperatures and ask about people’s conditions to figure out if someone has contracted the virus. People don’t know about PCR tests, and I’ve never seen one. Cadres may know about them, though…”


―― We’ve heard that disease control restrictions have been loosened in cities near the border with China and on the border with South Korea. Have controls really been loosened?

“Disease control measures are still in place, but the authorities no longer punish people for not wearing masks. We’ve been told that we can voluntarily wear masks when we go outside. All they do is tell us to wear masks whenever we take part in group events, such as meetings.”

Young soldiers with masks guarding the border in Sinuiju behind a barbed-wire fence. Taken by ASIAPRESS in July 2021 on the Chinese side of the border.

◆ There are still fever patients in North Korea

“B” is a housewife who lives in the downtown of a city in Yanggang Province.


―― Have disease control measures been relaxed?

“The authorities are still keeping people on their toes about them here. It seems they’ve been relaxed in other areas, but we’re close to the Chinese border. That being said, only people who have symptoms are having their temperatures checked now. The authorities have told us that if we have a fever, we should take it upon ourselves to report it, medicate ourselves, and self-isolation.”

※ Before the “victory declaration,” neighborhood watch units went around two to three times a day to check people’s temperatures.


―― Are the authorities still disinfecting areas around apartments?

“They’ve decreased the number of disinfections from four to five a day to just two. The disinfection efforts are mainly happening in places with fever cases. People here probably all got the virus and are now fully recovered. There’s hardly anyone who has serious symptoms in my view.

However, I’m not sure if these cases are colds or COVID-19 cases. The disease control system is still in place, but people expect things to get better now.”

◆ Relaxing of disease control measures in the China-North Korea border region

―― Are masks required along with temperature checks?

“They tell us to wear masks, but no one gets punished for not wearing them anymore. Recently, the authorities conducted a survey of COVID-19 cases in neighborhood watch units and found that all households had contracted the virus with the exception of one or two families.

The security checkpoints run by neighborhood watch units no longer conduct entry checks or temperature checks. That being said, the authorities are still monitoring whether people are coming from other areas.”


―― What about the situation in workplaces and in markets?

“There’s still things that are unclear, but I’ve heard that people are now going back to work full time instead of on shifts as they did before. The authorities are not cracking down on things as much in the markets, either. The authorities, however, are telling people to watch each other and beware of the coronavirus. They are essentially telling people that if they have fevers, they should voluntarily report it and get medical treatment.”


―― Are restrictions on movement to other areas still in place?

“There are still strong restrictions on people going to other counties. People can go if they are doing work for their company. There’s no more restrictions on people taking part in farm mobilizations.

However, people still can’t really move around for personal reasons. One neighbor who wanted to go to Unheung County for something wasn’t allowed to get past a checkpoint because they said he didn’t have the right documents.” (To be continued in the next installment >>)

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


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