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North Korea: Is the country really free of coronavirus?

North Korea has said it has not recorded a single case of the Covid-19 coronavirus.
North Korea has said it has not recorded a single case of the Covid-19 coronavirus. © AFP / FRANCE 24

More than 2 million coronavirus cases have been reported across the world, affecting 185 countries. But North Korea says it is completely free of the virus, a claim that has been met with scepticism in some quarters. France 24 spoke to Daniel Wertz, program manager at the US-based National Committee on North Korea to find out more.

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Pak Myong Su, the director of North Korea’s anti-epidemic headquarters, told AFP earlier this month that "not one single person has been infected with the novel coronavirus in our country so far”.

The claim was disputed by General Robert Abrams, commander of United States Forces Korea, who said it was “impossible” that the secretive authoritarian state did not have a single case of the virus.

“In all likelihood there have been a number of unconfirmed cases,” agreed Wertz, but added that a lack of testing may mean that any outbreak may have gone undetected.

Nevertheless, North Korea’s prompt action in sealing its borders and imposing quarantine measures early on in the coronavirus outbreak could mean that a large outbreak has been avoided, at least for now.

“Back in January, North Korea sealed its borders and began imposing internal quarantines even before the city of Wuhan in China was fully sealed off, which in hindsight looks like it was actually smart for the most part,” said Wertz.

But, he added: “Even if North Korea’s avoided a worst-case scenario, that could change rapidly in the future.”

With poverty and malnutrition rife, coupled with poor healthcare infrastructure, a full-scale coronavirus outbreak in the country could prove devastating, said Wertz.

“Even in the capital a lot of hospitals have to reuse basic medical supplies such as syringes and scalpels. If there was a large coronavirus outbreak in North Korea, I think the country’s public health system would be badly unprepared to deal with it,” he said.

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