North Korean escapee warns of coronavirus impact on secret believers

February 18, 2020 by Lindy Lowry in Asia

As the coronavirus continues to spread with the CDC announcing that it has reached pandemic status, the outbreak could mean serious implications for secret believers in North Korea.

 

While North Korea has yet to report any confirmed cases of infection, North Pyongyang Province reported that on February 7, five people died after suffering from high fevers in hospitals in Sinuiju, which borders China.

Pyongyang denied that their deaths were from the coronavirus. However, the country’s Ministry of Public Health hints that those who are suspected to be infected, such as those with a fever or cough, are being quarantined and treated.

North Korea has reportedly placed roughly 10,000 people under quarantine over coronavirus fears, but still has not confirmed a single case of the virus.  However, skeptics s have questioned the North’s claim to have zero infections. Given the country’s proximity to China,  proximity to China, the situation could be far worse than Pyongyang is letting on, reports Time magazine. 

It is possible that North Korea is concealing an outbreak for reasons of national pride. “The Kim regime prioritizes projecting strength and controlling panic over protecting public health. It will thus underreport its coronavirus problem until a crisis is undeniable,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, told Time magazine.

About 40 percent of those under quarantine have been released after showing no symptoms, according to the Korea Herald, citing state media reports. In mid-February, the hermit kingdom doubled the quarantine period for those at risk of contracting coronavirus to a month, the report said.

Meanwhile, people in North Korea who may have come into contact with foreigners have been isolated for more than 40 days.

North Korea has reportedly placed roughly 10,000 people under quarantine over coronavirus fears, but still has not confirmed a single case of the virus. About 40 percent of those under quarantine have been released after showing no symptoms, according to the Korea Herald, citing state media reports. The Hermit Kingdom in mid-February doubled the quarantine period for those at risk of contracting coronavirus to a month, the report said. Meanwhile, people in North Korea who may have come into contact with foreigners have been isolated for more than 40 days.

So far, many of the countries that have reported large numbers of coronavirus infections—South Korea, Japan, Italy—have modern public health systems. North Korea’s health system suffers from a lack of funding and equipment, and medical coverage is spotty in the country’s poor rural areas.

Based on his experience of growing up in the “hermit kingdom,” and suffering from cholera as a child, North Korean escapee Timothy Cho offers his perspective on the condition of healthcare in North Korea—and what Christians could face, on top of the systematic persecution and oppression they already endure:

Growing up, I remember when cholera broke out in North Korea, especially my poor village. I was one of those children infected. I saw how lack of food and medicine caused the deaths of so many vulnerable children who lived on the streets.

If there really are people infected with the coronavirus in North Korea, this will have a serious impact. The country has almost no medical facilities or medications.

Even the elites have to ration expired paracetamol or ibuprofen when contagious diseases break out, notes a former North Korean diplomat. If this is the case for even the country’s elites, it explains why North Korea is unable to provide any medical treatment for ordinary citizens with no special status infected with any type of contagious disease.

Increased security leads to increased prices 

Almost as serious as the danger of catching the coronavirus are the problems caused by North Korea’s attempts to prevent the disease from coming into the country. Pyongyang completely shut down the border with China and has increased the numbers of KPA (the Korean People’s Army) at the border.

Restrictions like these prevent the smuggling in of food and medicines. And because the country isn’t importing goods from China, shortages in the raw materials required to operate North Korea’s factories have raised the prices of food. Family members of escapees shared with me that in just two weeks, food prices have skyrocketed: 1kg rice has gone up from KPW 4,000 to KPW 6,500; 1kg soybean is up from KPW 8,000 to KPW 15,600; and 1kg flour is up from KPW 4,200 to KPW 6,175.

Fuel prices have also gone up: 1kg diesel is now KPW 11,315, up from KPW 7,500. Food and fuel shortages will be a serious problem for those trying to survive North Korea’s freezing winter.

In North Korea, people are vulnerable to not only the coronavirus outbreak, but also famine. The impact could mean long-term problems—even a second economic crisis that could lead to starvation for millions.

Open Doors secret workers are keeping 60,000 North Korean believers alive with vital food and aid, as well smuggling in illegal Bibles, broadcasting Christian radio programs and running safe houses at the Chinese border for those who are able to escape.

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