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North Korea Locks Down Its Capital Pyongyang as Virus Spreads Across Chinese Border

Pyongyang shut down for five days as North Korean authorities note many cases of 'unknown respiratory illness'
Leo Timm
Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: January 25, 2023
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 on August 11, 2021. (Image: KIM WON JIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Pyongyang, the capital of nuclear-armed North Korea, went under a five-day lockdown due to a rise in cases of “unknown respiratory illness,” according to an outlet based in South Korea.

The Seoul-based NK News reported that Pyongyang residents were ordered to stay home until Sunday, Jan. 29, but did not specify if the “respiratory illness” in question was COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2.

Residents of the capital, which enjoys a generally much higher standard of living and public services than the rest of North Korea, were also required to take their temperature several times a day.

The measures taken by the totalitarian Korean Workers Party (KWP) regime have prompted Pyongyang residents to stockpile essentials in case the Party imposes stricter lockdowns in future. According to NK News, it is unclear if other parts of the country have begun implementing their own anti-COVID policies.

State-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said it has intensified public awareness drives in the industrial city of Kaesong, which lies near the inter-Korean border. Workers are expected to comply with epidemic prevention measures of their own accord.

North Korea acknowledged its first outbreak of COVID-19 last year, but by the end of August had declared victory over the epidemic.

But the Stalinist dictatorship’s dearth of medical infrastructure and resources, plus close proximity to hard-hit China, make this claim unlikely. North Korea has never confirmed how many people have been infected with or died of COVID-19, instead tallying millions of “mystery fevers.”

It’s likely that the spike in “respiratory illness” is related to the out-of-control epidemic situation in Communist China, which gave up its ill-conceived “zero-COVID” policy as the SARS-CoV-2 virus tore across the massive country.

North Korea’s strict communist regime keeps the country relatively isolated from the outside world; most of the trade and foreign relations are conducted with China. People familiar with the North Korean community in Northeast China say that in recent weeks, many North Korean workers, traders, and even a diplomat stationed in the country have succumbed to COVID-19.

The KWP maintains nominally strict border controls and attempted to build a wall along the Sino-Korean border during the pandemic, but corruption and practical economic considerations lead the authorities to fail to secure the border — or simply turn a blind eye.