Is North Korea coronavirus-free? Escalating virus response raises fears of outbreak

Thousands have been quarantined as a border town is placed under lockdown

north-korea-kim-jong-un-covid-AP North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, presides over an executive policy council meeting at the ruling Workers Party in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020 | AP

North Korea is quarantining thousands of people and shipping food and other aid to a southern city locked down over coronavirus worries, officials said, as the country's response to a suspected case reinforces doubt about its longstanding claim to be virus-free.

But amid the outside skepticism and a stream of North Korean propaganda glorifying its virus efforts, an exchange between Pyongyang and the United Nations is providing new clarity and actual numbers about what might be happening in the North, which has closed its borders and cut travel never a free-flowing stream by outsider monitors and journalists.

In late July, North Korea said it had imposed its maximum emergency system to guard against the virus spreading after finding a person with COVID-19 symptoms in Kaesong city, near the border with rival South Korea.

State media reported that leader Kim Jong Un then ordered a total lockdown of Kaesong, and said the suspected case was a North Korean who had earlier fled to South Korea before slipping back into Kaesong last month.

North Korea's public admission of its first potential case and the emergency steps it took prompted immediate outside speculation that Pyongyang may be worried about a big outbreak after months of steadfastly claiming it had no cases.

Foreign experts are highly skeptical over the North's assertion of no cases, in large part because of its long, porous border with China, where the virus emerged, and its history of hiding past disease outbreaks.

In a report to the World Health Organization obtained by The Associated Press, North Korea said it has quarantined 64 first contacts of the suspected Keasong case and 3,571 secondary contacts in state-run facilities for 40 days, according to Dr. Edwin Salvador, WHO representative to North Korea.

Salvador said in an email to AP that North Korea also informed WHO of the suspected first case, saying that person was tested for COVID-19 but the test results were inconclusive. Salvador said the WHO has requested that North Korea share more information about the person.

Salvador said all North Korea's international borders remain closed, group gatherings are banned, masks are required in public, and all educational institutions, including preschools, are on an extended summer break. Since the end of December, Salvador said North Korea has quarantined and released 25,905 people, 382 of them foreigners.

Many outside observers are all but certain the virus already entered North Korea because it closed the border with China, its biggest trading partner, weeks after the world's first known cases were recorded in Wuhan in December.

Monitoring groups in Seoul have steadfastly reported about North Korean virus cases and deaths.

A major coronavirus outbreak may cause a humanitarian disaster because of North Korea's broken public health care system and lack of medical supplies.

But it's unclear how serious the North's current situation is.

Though a really extensive local outbreak might not have occurred yet, it's likely that a considerable number of people has been infected, said analyst Hong Min at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification. 

Even though North Korea locks itself down, there should be suspected cases there and authorities must aggressively diagnose them. But North Korea has never been transparent about whether it has such a capacity and the will to do so.