A North Korean official who returned from China has reportedly been executed for going to a public bath in violation of his quarantine – while experts express doubts about Pyongyang’s claim that the hermit kingdom doesn’t have a single case of the coronavirus.
The trade official, who had been placed in isolation after traveling to China, was arrested and immediately shot for risking the spread of the deadly disease, the Dong-a Ilbo news outlet in South Korea reported.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has vowed to “rule by military law” against anyone who leaves quarantine without permission.
Meanwhile, an official at North Korea’s National Security Agency was exiled to work on a farm because he hid a recent trip to China, according to the UK’s Mirror.
Some South Korean media outlets have reported several coronavirus cases and possible deaths from the illness in the North — but World Health Organization officials based in Pyongyang told the Voice of America that they have not been notified of any confirmed cases.
North Korea has remained adamant that there have been no cases of coronavirus within its borders, though experts outside the reclusive country — which shares an 880-mile-long border with China — have met that assertion with a healthy dose of skepticism.
“The North Korean authorities have told FAO that there are no cases of the new coronavirus, but we are suspicious of such claims,” Bir Mandal of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization told Korea Biomed, the Mirror reported.
Harry Kazianis, director of Korean studies at the Center for National Interest, told Fox News that “there is no way that North Korea is not being impacted by the coronavirus.
“They are clearly lying as they don’t want to show any weakness or that there is any threat to the regime,” Kazianis told the outlet. “Considering how there are many porous sections of the North Korea-China border — and how the Kim regime depends on illegal trade to survive — it is clear the virus has come to North Korea.”
Last week, North Korean health ministry official Song In Bom told state media that there are no coronavirus cases in the country, but that they would be prepared in the event that the outbreak spread.
“Just because there is no case of the new coronavirus in our country, we should not be too relieved, but have civil awareness and work together for prevention,” he said, according to Reuters.
But North Korea, with its dated health care system, is ill-equipped to handle the novel virus, according to aid workers.
Kee Park, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School who has made multiple humanitarian trips to the impoverished country, said it would struggle to manage an outbreak.
“Perhaps they can manage to detect and treat small numbers, but an outbreak could likely easily overload the health system,” Park told the South China Morning Post.
“Critical medical supplies are hard to import and vital equipment is unable to be repaired due to the difficulty in procuring parts,” he said.
Nagi Shafik, former project manager for the World Health Organization’s office in Pyongyang, said North Korean authorities would need supplies such as masks, antivirals and antibiotics.
“I presume there are more items needed, especially when it comes to cleaning and sterilization,” Shafik told the news outlet.
“May I remind as well that many women and children suffer from malnutrition; these are factors that affect the immunity system and render humans more susceptible to infection,” he added.
On Thursday, the Red Cross called for an urgent exemption from sanctions on North Korea to help prevent an outbreak of the coronavirus in the country.
“We know that there is urgent need of personal protective gear and testing kits, items which will be vital to prepare for a possible outbreak,” Xavier Castellanos, Asia Pacific director for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies, said in a statement, Reuters reported.
An exemption allowing for a bank transfer to the IFRC’s branch in North Korea “is essential as a life-saving intervention,” he said. “There is currently no other mode available for humanitarian intervention and we must act now.”
The sanctions were imposed over the country’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, which were developed in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.
State media said Pyongyang was extending the quarantine period for people showing symptoms to 30 days, and all government institutions and foreigners living in the country were expected to comply “unconditionally.”
New York Post