The VICE Guide to Right Now

North Korea Still 'Coronavirus-Free' According to North Korea

Experts suspect the reality might be much, much darker.
April 15, 2020, 11:36pm
Pyongyang north korea
People wearing face masks walk before a propaganda poster displayed on a street in Pyongyang on April 9, 2020. KIM Won Jin / AFP

This article originally appeared on VICE Asia.

North Korea has no confirmed cases of COVID-19. That is according to North Korea, and despite the fact that the country shares its borders with Asia’s two most heavily infected nations, South Korea and China—the latter of which has been grappling with the virus since December and, in that time, seen more than 83,000 confirmed cases and at least 3,340 deaths.


The hermit kingdom’s borders have been closed to all foreign tourists since January, and although the country was still reportedly testing for coronavirus and had more than 500 people in quarantine as of last week, a World Health Organisation representative claimed there are still no confirmed cases, according to the ABC.

Whether or not this is actually the case is unclear: but it's likely they're not being entirely transparent about their rate of infection. That said, experts also claim that the North Korean government itself may not even be aware of an outbreak within its borders—nor properly equipped to deal with one.

"It's a guessing game regarding the pandemic situation inside North Korea," Zhiqun Zhu, a political science professor at Bucknell University, told the ABC. "Even the North Korean Government probably does not know how many cases there are in North Korea. The fact that they've requested assistance from other countries and many people are wearing masks in public suggests that the virus is spreading.

“Very likely, the coronavirus is spreading on a limited scale in North Korea, but the North Korean Government does not want to create a public panic by openly acknowledging it.”

Korea expert and former Pyongyang AP bureau chief Jean H Lee, meanwhile, suggested that a disease like COVID-19 could exceed the capacities of the country’s health infrastructure.

"North Korea's public health system is very fragile and may not be equipped to deal with such a pandemic,” she said. “I still remember one clinic [in Pyongyang] where the doctor told me they didn't even have the medicine to stop diarrhea … [so] we can extrapolate and imagine how difficult it would be for them to cope with an epidemic like COVID-19."

Whether or not the nation has confirmed local cases of coronavirus, though, Pyongyang still appears to be soliciting aid. In February, Russia responded to a request from North Korea and provided 1,500 COVID-19 test kits to the Asian nation, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry—and Professor Zhu said he would not be surprised if China had also sent medical supplies.

“The drastic measures it [North Korea] has taken so far (such as being the first to shut borders with China in late January … [and] the requests for aid … all suggest that the North Korean Government is taking this very seriously and is determined to contain the virus before it breaks out across the country."

Follow Gavin on Twitter or Instagram