North Korea’s ruling party says the coronavirus pandemic has created obstacles for its “economic construction” efforts, but says the country “has been maintaining a very stable anti-epidemic situation”, state media has reported.
Foreign experts remain sceptical of North Korea’s suggestion it is coronavirus-free given the high number of cases in neighbouring countries and the way the country trades via smuggling goods across borders.
In a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea on Saturday, a joint resolution was adopted to take “more thorough state measures for protecting life and safety of people from the great worldwide epidemic disease”, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
Much praise was given to the reclusive nation’s “strict, top-class, emergency anti-epidemic measures” and “consistency and compulsoriness in the nationwide protective measures”, at the meeting, which was presided over by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Photos released by state media showed none of the committee members who attended the meeting, including Mr Kim, were wearing masks nor sitting unusually far apart from each other.
The resolution included goals of “continuously intensifying the nationwide emergency anti-epidemic services and pushing ahead with the economic construction, increasing national defence capability and stabilising the people’s livelihood this year”, KCNA said.
The report also said Mr Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, a senior government official, was elected as an alternate member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the ruling party.
Censorship could allow North Korea to ‘conceal this outbreak’
North Korea shares its borders with Asia’s two most infected nations: China, which had more than 83,000 confirmed cases and South Korea, who had 10,480 cases and 211 deaths as of Sunday morning.
North Korea was among the first countries to seal its borders in February.
Khang Vu, a doctoral student in political science at Boston College, said North Korea would not want to disrupt its socioeconomic plan during an “uncertain time” or “undermine Kim’s legitimacy” by publishing the real number of COVID-19 cases in the country.
He said the Government was worried about the potential spread of the virus, but the way it traded with China might have left it exposed.
Mr Vu said there was evidence of government-sponsored smuggling to get supplies to protect soldiers, while other traders needed to smuggle goods “as a means of survival”.
“Cases of illegal smuggling occurred despite the border closure. Because it is difficult to keep track of unofficial smuggling activities during quarantine, the North Korean authority cannot be certain that its strict measures would succeed,” Mr Vu, a regular contributor to the Lowy Institute, said.
Concealing an outbreak would also be possible due to censorship in the country.
“In the United States, hospitals can declare ‘presumptive positive cases’ while awaiting confirmation from the Centre for Disease Control. In North Korea, such a process may not exist due to censorship,” Mr Vu said.
“North Korea can attribute causes of death to other diseases, not necessarily to the coronavirus, or it simply fabricated the numbers as China did in January.
A World Health Organisation representative to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea said on Tuesday that the country is still testing for coronavirus and has more than 500 people in quarantine, but still had no confirmed cases yet.
It automatically quarantined all foreign diplomats in Pyongyang for one month and controlled the movement of its population.
The head of US forces in South Korea said in mid-March that North Korea had its military forces on lockdown for about 30 days and had recently resumed training.
A North Korean diplomat at its UN mission in Geneva also confirmed the military were in lockdown.
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