North Korea’s coronavirus figures almost certainly underreported

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

North Korea’s anti-virus measures have been consistently forceful, or even blunt. It is a telling example of the state’s strong caution, or fear, that it even recently refused to take back 20 defectors caught in China and held in Dandong. State media reports have said that close to 10,000 people are under quarantine, and as Yonhap notes, the full figure reaches 10,000 if one includes the 380 foreigners under quarantine in Pyongyang:

North Korea has placed around 10,000 people under quarantine over coronavirus concerns and released about 40 percent of them as they showed no symptoms, according to state media reports.

North Korea has not reported an outbreak of COVID-19, which emerged in neighboring China in late December, but it has intensified anti-virus efforts by tightening its borders and toughening quarantine criteria and procedures.

According to North Korea media reports, Pyongyang has put 2,420 people under quarantine in South Pyongan Province, 3,000 in North Pyongan Province, 1,500 in Kangwon Province and 2,630 in Jagang Province.

The total could exceed 10,000 if around 380 foreigners staying in Pyongyang are included, though Pyongyang has not unveiled official numbers of quarantined people.

The Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the North’s ruling party, said on Monday that quarantine is currently being lifted on people who came into contact with people from other countries in accordance with relevant guidelines.

“To block the flow and spread of the infectious disease, it is important to ensure a complete preventive sealing-off of all quarantine facilities … (as well as to) well establish treatment measures and lift quarantine strictly in accordance with what is stipulated in the guidelines,” the newspaper said.

The paper also emphasized that quarantine is being lifted according to relevant guidelines for foreigners stationed in Pyongyang, public servants, interpreters and drivers at high risk of having been exposed.

(Source: Koh Byung-joon, “N.K. quarantines about 10,000 people for potential infection by new coronavirus,” Yonhap News, March 9, 2020.)

At the same time, reports keep surfacing, mainly through Daily NK, about serious numbers of deaths in the country. For example, according to one of their sources, 200 soldiers have died from the virus in the country. As with all news from North Korea, we should take these with a big grain of salt:

A Daily NK source inside North Korea’s military reported on Mar. 6 that the military’s medical corps had sent a report detailing the impact of COVID-19 on the country’s soldiers to military leaders.

The report stated that 180 soldiers had died in January and February and that approximately 3,700 soldiers are currently under quarantine. According to the report, the soldiers who had died were predominantly stationed on or around the Sino-North Korean border in North Pyongan, Chagang, Ryanggang, and North Hamgyong provinces.

The report came after the military’s leadership had ordered hospitals serving each branch of the military to collect data on the number of soldiers who had died after suffering from high fevers stemming from pneumonia, tuberculosis, asthma or colds. Military leaders also asked the hospitals to report on the numbers of those currently in quarantine.

The report has reportedly caused an uproar in North Korea’s military establishment and has led military leaders to take several measures to prevent the spread of what appears to be COVID-19 infections.


One key measure the military has implemented is for corpses to be “thoroughly disinfected.” This contrasts with the North Korean government’s order that all hospitals cremate all corpses.

“There’s just too many bodies [to be cremated in the military] and they didn’t want news [of the cremations] to leak outside the military,” Daily NK’s military source explained.

(Source: Jeong Tae Joo, “Sources: Almost 200 soldiers have died from COVID-19,” Daily NK, March 9, 2020.)

And, also from Daily NK:

Some North Koreans living in North Pyongan Province suspect that the government is covering up the death of a man who recently died of symptoms similar to those suffering from COVID-19 infections, Daily NK has learned.

The man reportedly died on Feb. 16 after suffering for a week from a fever and other cold-like symptoms.

“The man had been involved in smuggling across the Sino-North Korean border up until early February. He began suffering from what seemed to be a cold and was taking cold medicine but he failed to get better,” a source in North Pyongan Province told Daily NK on Feb. 23.

The man reportedly continued his smuggling activities even after the shutdown of the Sino-North Korean border in late January.

The head officer at a sentry point along the Sino-North Korean border is expected to be punished severely for turning a blind eye to the man’s smuggling activities, sources said.


Local officials in Ryongchon County along with disease control officials began an investigation into the man’s death after holding a meeting on Feb. 17. The officials, however, concluded that the man had not died of a COVID-19 infection.

“There were rumors that the man had died of COVID-19, but local officials said that he had long suffered from bronchial asthma and he had died from pneumonia brought on by the common cold,” the North Pyongan Province source said.

The man’s body was reportedly cremated five hours after his death and his entire family was taken to a local hospital for medical examinations.

Daily NK sources reported that Ryongchon County locals believe that the man could have died from a COVID-19 infection, particularly given that there have been upwards of 100 infection confirmed in Liaoning Province, right across the border from North Korea.

(Source: Jong So Yong, “N. Korean man dies of COVID-19 infection-like symptoms,” Daily NK, 26 February, 2020.)

And so on and so forth. These are just two example out of several similar reports.

The point is not that we should read these death tolls literally. Telling a death from covid-19 from a regular flu would seem almost impossible for those who aren’t medical professionals, and North Korea has a scarce quantity of test kits around. Rather, the point is that the North Korean government’s claims of zero infections and zero deaths simply must be heavily exaggerated. If 10,000 people are held in quarantine, the government likely determines the situation to be so serious not only from what it knows from other countries, but because it has seen direct reasons on its own territory for doing so. The same goes for the warning by North Korean border guards that Chinese who approach North Korean territory along the border will get shot. North Korean human contacts with China are so frequent and so common that it is hard to imagine the country being totally free from the virus at this point.

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