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The coronavirus has infected more than 60,000 people across 26 countries after first being discovered in China’s Hubei Province, and yet North Korea, which shares a border with the country where more than 59,000 of those cases and over 1,360 deaths have been reported, claims it does not have a single illness.
Unverified reports about a quarantined person allegedly being executed by the country after visiting a public bath have emerged, as well as a potential first confirmed case, but the government remains steadfast in denying that the virus has reached its borders, which many experts have cast doubt on.
“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,” Harry Kazianis, director of Korean Studies at the Center for National Interest, told Fox News. “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, health ministry official Song In Bom told state media that there are no cases of the virus — which has been named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization (WHO) — 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 Nagi Shafik, former project manager for WHO in Pyongyang, told the South China Morning Post that the country would be ill-equipped to deal with such an outbreak, and would likely lack proper safety gear and medical equipment.
“I presume there are more items needed, especially when it comes to cleaning and sterilization,” he told SCMP.com. “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.”
Kazianis also said that the country’s fragile health care system would be overwhelmed if the outbreak swept through the nation, and that “millions of everyday citizens would be essentially left to die.”
“North Korea’s health care system is devoid of the most basic treatments for any sort of medical problem,” he said. “Things like antibiotics, any sort of preventative care are unheard of in the countryside or rural areas and only reserved for the party elite in Pyongyang.”
So far, North Korea has banned all tourists and cut off transportation links with China in an effort to stave off the illness. It’s also enacted a 30-day quarantine period and said “all the institutions and fields of the state and foreigners staying in the DPRK should obey it unconditionally.”
But cutting the country off from the rest of the world is dangerous, as is withholding the truth about the virus in order to preserve Kim’s reputation, Kazianis said.
“The real danger is if the situation were to spiral out of control and some sort of government collapse occurred,” he said. “While I would say the chances are remote, this is the real danger that we must worry about when it comes to North Korea. If the Kim regime did collapse, from coronavirus or something else, who controls their nuclear weapons? What about their chemical or biological weapons? Who feeds the 25 million North Koreans?”
“North Korea will always be a threat, and if the state collapsed we would be dealing with a crisis of epic proportions not seen since WW2,” Kazianis said. “And that is terrifying.”