July 10, 2020 11:03
The coronavirus epidemic is suspected to have killed more than 500 people in North Korea as infections mounted in May and June. North Korea officially admits no coronavirus infections, but sources say authorities are having a tough time containing the epidemic.
During a Politburo meeting last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un referred to coronavirus as a "fatal crisis" and ordered officials to maintain "maximum awareness."
One source said Thursday, "The number of coronavirus fatalities in North Korea surpassed 500 late last month. The number of confirmed cases stands at only around 40 while another 100 are suspected, but 390,000 people have been isolated, so the number of fatalities is rising sharply."
The source said students, soldiers and others were rounded up and sent to work in the rice paddies in May and June, and schools also opened in early June after a two-month delay, causing the virus to spread rapidly.
The South Korean military and intelligence agencies are busy gathering and analyzing information.
Kim's sister Yo-jong's belligerent rhetoric against the South last month and the demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong are believed to be related to efforts by the regime to divert public attention from the economic crisis triggered by sanctions and the regime's failure to contain the virus.
The regime originally wanted to reopen schools on June 1, but delayed it by two more days after many schools failed to pass quarantine tests.
Schools did reopen on June 3, but the coronavirus epidemic continued to spread and apparently prompted authorities to push forward the start of the school holidays from August to July.
There are also signs that the borders with China are being sealed off again after a brief reopening. North Korea closed its borders in late January, but reopened parts of it recently to import daily necessities. Early this week, it closed down the customs office in Sinuiju.
The source said, "This was due to Kim Jong-un ordering officials to strengthen emergency quarantine measures during the Politburo meeting on July 2."
The official Minju Choson newspaper reported Tuesday that authorities "completely sealed off borders, airspace and territorial waters, while preemptive steps are being taken to strengthen monitoring."
Cho Han-bum, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said, "Foreign diplomats in Pyongyang recently requested a chartered plane to leave the country but had to depart overland because the regime refused" for fear of an inflow of the disease from abroad.
But authorities are reportedly classifying coronavirus fatalities as deaths caused by acute pneumonia to cover up the situation.
One diplomatic source said, "Although it doesn't have a lot of diagnostic kits, North Korea imports them from China and Russia and is capable of conducting tests." Victims' bodies are swiftly cremated, the source added.
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