North Korea has instituted a sweeping crackdown on trade and travel, as one of the world’s most reclusive nations further cuts itself off in a bid to fight off the spread of coronavirus.
The deadly respiratory disease, which first emerged in Wuhan, has killed more than 800 and infected more than 30,000 in China and spread to nearly 30 countries. More than 150 cases have been confirmed across Liaoning and Jilin, the provinces that share a 1,420km border with North Korea, according to China’s official statistics.
No coronavirus cases have been confirmed in North Korea but analysts are anxious over the potential for an outbreak, warning that the country’s inability to handle a serious health crisis makes it particularly vulnerable. The lockdown, which essentially cuts off North Korea from China, its most important ally and trading partner, also poses a serious threat to the economy of the country, led by Kim Jong Un.
Road, rail and air routes with China and Russia have either been closed or severely reduced, moves which analysts said are tougher than during the global outbreaks of Sars in 2003 and Ebola in 2014. Scores of foreign emissaries, including from the UK, were this week instructed to stay inside the drab Soviet-era concrete diplomatic compound in the capital Pyongyang.
“Prevention is the most effective strategy for a country like [North Korea] lacking sufficient capacity to detect, treat, and contain the virus,” said Kee Park, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School who has worked inside North Korea.
State propagandists have told the country’s 25m people that stopping the virus spreading is a fight for “national survival”. Mr Park said the “aggressive measures” were taken earlier than neighbouring countries.
Peter Ward, a North Korea researcher with the University of Vienna, said already-limited movement of people inside North Korea might help slow the spread of the disease but the country risked a “major public health catastrophe” if the virus reached any big locality.
“Right now they are pushing as hard as they possibly can to make sure it doesn’t happen. If the disease starts spreading in North Korea, things could get very, very ugly,” he said.
One North Korean defector who has first-hand experience of the country’s healthcare system said supplies of basic preventive kits with masks and sanitiser were “very short”.
Exacerbating the country’s vulnerability are tough international sanctions imposed in response to its testing of long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. The measures constrain the sale and supply of medical equipment, including from humanitarian organisations. Health experts are now calling for pre-emptive waivers from the UN to enable supplies to be sent to authorities in Pyongyang.
Nagi Shafik, a former manager at the World Health Organization office in Pyongyang, said the situation was dire.
“Countries are racing to fight the spread of the disease and to save lives. What do they have in North Korea to deal with the crisis?,” he said. “They don’t even have masks, personal protective equipment or reagents for the laboratory to confirm diagnosis.”
Tourism from China, an important source of cash for the Kim regime, was cut on January 21, just hours after Beijing confirmed cases of human-to-human transmission of the virus.
“Even the North Korean consulate in Dandong [in China] is closed right now, they won’t issue travel documents for anyone,” said one truck driver who regularly travels between the two countries.
Despite Pyongyang’s efforts, some cross-border smuggling activities have continued, highlighting the daily struggle for subsistence among many North Koreans.
“The level of security and measures on the movement of people are heightened compared to during Sars . . . [however] smuggling, especially at night-time, is continuing,” said Kim Seong Min, a former North Korean military official now based in Seoul.
Still, the crackdown raises questions over the threat of mounting pressure on both elites — who profit from trade and tourism with China — and ordinary people, especially if borders remain shut for months.
“Lots of people on the local level will be very frustrated and demand that restrictions ease. Not even a government as harsh as the North Korean one is completely immune to pressure like that,” said Benjamin Silberstein, an expert on the North Korean economy and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a US think-tank.