While we reported earlier that North Korea’s leader has sent a letter to the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, offering his condolences for South Korean victims of the coronavirus, observers have expressed fears that the north could be suppressing information about infections.
Given that countries with advanced health services are struggling to contain the outbreak, a significant number of infections in North Korea would place intolerable strain on its weak medical infrastructure.
“Unfortunately, the international community has no idea if the coronavirus is spreading inside North Korea,” said a recent report by Jessica Lee, an East Asia expert at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a thinktank in Washington.
“The fact that we know nothing about the level of infection or deaths within North Korea is extremely problematic and, left unchanged, could have serious public health implications.”
While continuing to declare itself virus-free, North Korea has banned foreign tourists, placed people who have traveled abroad in quarantine and closed its 900-mile border with China – a move that overseas monitors with contacts inside the country say has caused shortages of food, cooking oil and gasoline.
As the number of cases south of the border dividing the Korean peninsula continues to grow, pressure is mounting on the North to allow international experts to assess the situation there.
The UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, has urged North Korea to “allow full and unimpeded access to medical experts and humanitarian actors, and relax restrictions on access to information. Further isolation of the country is not the answer”.
In addition, the US state department has said it would “support and encourage” international efforts to help North Korea fight the disease, despite stringent sanctions imposed on the country over its nuclear weapons programme.