Are there Coronavirus Cases in North Korea?

Featured image: Sinuiju, North Korea, the speculated area of the cases.

Yesterday the Daily NK published a report claiming that five North Koreans were alleged to have died from the Coronavirus in the border city of Sinuiju. The claims come despite Pyongyang’s effort to completely close down the border with China, suspending all income trade and travel with the outside world and imposing a mandatory quarantine on any foreigners who do visit the country. If the claims were to be accurate, however, it would place North Korea on the highest total of fatalities from the virus outside of China.

However, the claims are not convincing, cannot be verified and so cannot be taken too seriously. First of all, the source the claims were published in: the Daily NK, is at best a rumour mill. Whilst experts point out that it sometimes reveals valuable information from inside the DPRK, nevertheless it has been repeatedly criticized for its shortcomings in presenting a constant flow of unverifiable accounts, which owing to information limitations in North Korea itself, may be based on gossip and hearsay. On repeated occasions, articles by the Daily NK have been contradicted by more verifiable sources.

In addition, critics have also highlighted that the organization is funded by Unification Media Group, of which is a patron of the U.S based National Endowment for Democracy. The editorial slant of the publication in favour of regime change and obvious emphasis upon negative stories, of which as above notes are not always verified, presents some challenges to it as an authentic source even if its defenders contest it has some merits. In essence, the Daily NK is a hit and miss source which the question of its verfiability on standalone stories looms high.

On that note, the story of five Coronavirus deaths in Sinuiju is questionable. First all, healthcare facilities within North Korea have significant challenges in obtaining adequate resources. That people outside of Pyongyang would die of a given respiratory illness is not an uncommon development with the country having suffered a tuberculosis outbreak in its rural regions in 2018. Like anywhere else in the world, the spread of the Coronavirus is going to propel rumours, speculation and fear, and it is quite obvious to note that the information levels received by North Koreans on the matter are considerably less than the outside (who are also far from perfectly informed).

Given this, it is incredibly easy for rumours on this topic to gain traction. North Korea obviously releases no official data on potential Coronavirus cases, and of course never will. That comes without even asking the question as to whether its Doctors have adequate testing kits and resources to identify the virus. In this case, we are left counting on a rumour which arguably knows little more than we do about the situation than the wider world does. Therefore, the question of Coronavirus cases in the DPRK stands as, and will remain a total mystery.