North Korea’s nominal head of state Kim Yong-nam returned to the North in 2014 after eye treatment in Russia, but his plane did not land in Pyongyang but in Sinuiju about 200 km away, where he was kept in quarantine for three weeks due to the Ebola outbreak at the time.
North Korea’s one-time No. 2, Choe Ryong-hae, did the same when he returned to the North from abroad because the isolated regime quarantined everyone arriving from overseas.
During the SARS epidemic in 2003, North Korea halted flights between Pyongyang and Beijing, closed down the customs office in Sinuiju, which is the gateway to China, and halted tours to the scenic Mt. Kumgang resort for 62 days even though the project generated much-needed hard currency.
And during the MERS epidemic in 2015, the North turned to South Korea for medical supplies even though cross-border relations were bad during the Park Geun-hye administration.
Such things were unheard of until the 1980s, when North Korea’s economy was still in relatively good shape. Back then, tens of thousands of doctors were said to check on the health of nearly 150 families by making house calls.
But when North Korea’s economy began to flounder in the 1990s due to its costly nuclear arms program, the medical system collapsed completely. Hospitals ran out of medicine, while doctors merely wrote prescriptions telling people to buy smuggled drugs in open-air markets. Hospitals outside Pyongyang used empty beer bottles for intravenous drips, while surgery beds were stained with blood. Poor people can no longer afford to buy drugs and fake ones are rampant.
Diseases caused by contaminated water like cholera and typhoid, which have been mostly eradicated elsewhere, are still rampant in North Korea. Wells are commonly contaminated with human feces used as fertilizer.
Nor is there any option for social distancing in North Korea. People have to gather to plant and harvest crops, while factories require concentrated labor pools. On top of that, nutritional and sanitary conditions are poor, creating ideal conditions for epidemics.
Hundreds of people have apparently died in North Korea due to the coronavirus epidemic. North Korean authorities probably do not know whether they number in the hundreds or thousands.
Early this month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un referred to the epidemic as a “deadly crisis,” suggesting the situation is very serious. The virus probably spread in May and June when farms mobilize workers to plant crops and students return to schools. North Korea needed to open its borders to keep its sputtering economy afloat, but the epidemic has made this impossible.
SARS, Ebola and MERS did not last long, so North Korea only closed its borders for a few months until they disappeared. But there is no telling when the coronavirus epidemic will end. There is no vaccine or cure.
Ancient Rome was devastated by malaria, while the bubonic plague raged across Europe during the Middle Ages and the Inca and Aztec civilizations were decimated by smallpox. It is unclear how North Korea can overcome the coronavirus crisis.
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