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COVID Cases Continue Soaring in North Korea Despite Government ‘Declaring Victory’ Over Virus

Alina Wang
A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights, politics, tech, and society.
Published: September 26, 2022
Crew members of US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan have Covid-19 tests administered before disembarking at the Busan Naval Base on September 23, 2022 in Busan, South Korea. (Image: Woohae Cho via Getty Images)

COVID-19 cases continue spiking in North Korea as thousands are reportedly dying from starvation during lengthy quarantines and movement curbs. 

Despite the authoritarian government “declaring victory” over the virus on Aug. 10, the actual number of infections is only growing, a report by US-based outlet Radio Free Asia (RFA) said. The report added that the country’s leader, Kim Jong-Un, claims his country has “won its battle” against the virus and all “maximum emergency” restrictions were to be lifted. 


However, local sources revealed that the disease is still spreading rapidly amongst the population of nearly 26 million people — the vast majority of which is unvaccinated. 

Health officials of the Ryonmot Office disinfect a trolley bus as part of preventative measures against Covid-19 in North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang on June 9, 2022. (Image: KIM WON JIN/AFP via Getty Images)

“As the weather gets cooler in the fall, the number of farmers confirmed with COVID-19 is increasing in Kimhyongjik county, which faces the border with China,” a resident from the northern province of Ryangang told RFA under conditions of anonymity — citing security concerns. 

The source added that many people are still dying from the virus. “Last week, a couple in their 60s living in Muchang village died while quarantining at home, only ten days after being confirmed to be infected with COVID-19,” he said.

‘Mysterious fevers’ 

During the height of the outbreak, which is suspected to have begun in the summer, North Korea’s government announced that it had been keeping a tally of “mysterious fever cases from unknown origins.” 

Though the actual number of confirmed cases was estimated to be anywhere from 2 million to over 4.8 million based on odd fever statistics released by the government, state media reported that only 75 people had perished due to COVID-related symptoms. 

But another source who spoke with RFA is shedding new light on the reality being much different from what has been reported. 

The source said that health authorities in the country have resorted to using Chinese self-testing kits to unofficially confirm new COVID infections. 

Students at the Pyongyang Jang Chol Gu University of Commerce receive hand sanitizer before entering the campus, as part of preventative measures against Covid-19, in Pyongyang, North Korea on August 11, 2021. (Image: by KIM WON JIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Starving to death

The source explained how doctors “visit the households of sick people once a day to take their temperature,” and if their fever is still spiking after three days, they are reported to the country’s “quarantine commander.”

Once flagged, they are tested by the country’s health authorities who determine whether they will be sent to a quarantine camp or must self-isolate at home for no less than 20 days. And even though authorities are now testing for the disease with these COVID kits, they are still trying to cover up the actual number of deaths, the source said. 

“The quarantine authorities carried the bodies away by ambulance without informing their children who live in the same neighborhood,” he said. “They buried the bodies in a mountain away from the neighborhood. One of the sons is angry because he is unable to even hold a funeral for his parents.”

During the height of the outbreak, suspected COVID-19 patients were sent to group quarantine facilities where they were placed under 24/7 surveillance. After the “maximum emergency” alerts were lifted however, patients were still required to quarantine at home.

“COVID-19 patients and their families who quarantine at home only receive two tablets of fever-reducer each day, and no food is provided for them,” the source said, adding that,  “Residents are blaming the authorities for not taking care of the patients by blindly isolating them. They argue that COVID-19 patients are dying because they do not have anything to eat.”

Another anonymous resident told RFA that a 72-year-old woman in nearby Kimjongsuk county’s Songjon village had passed away while quarantined in her home one week after testing positive for the virus. 

“She ran out of food and nobody came to check on her,” the resident said. 

‘Declaring victory’

While COVID-19 ravaged most of the world for nearly three years, North Korea claimed that the virus had not been able to penetrate its closed borders, and for over two years, reported zero locally transmitted cases within the country. 

This was until May 19, when the hereditary dictatorship finally admitted that it had detected one positive case stemming from a “large-scale military parade” held the previous month, and declared a “maximum emergency alert” in order to contain and quell further spread of the virus. 

Shortly after, North Korea’s government unveiled that it would begin its vaccination program using SinoVac vaccines from China — prioritizing “essential workers” such as soldiers and construction workers. 

Sources in the country shared with RFA that broadcast vehicles would play loudspeaker messages at vaccination sites, highlighting how the vaccines were “a gracious gift” from Kim.

“They play loud political propaganda messages as the soldiers get injected with the vaccines from China,” two sources with family in the country said.

Another anonymous source confirmed the broadcasts, explaining how “vehicles that appeared at the vaccination site loudly proclaimed the greatness of the general secretary, who prepared for them the ‘Immortal Potion of Love,’” she said.

“They were calling it a ‘vaccination of love from the Highest Dignity,’” one of the sources said, using the term of exaltation reserved for leader Kim Jong-un.