This time last week, North Korea was still claiming to be one of three COVID-free countries worldwide. Now it’s facing a public health catastrophe

Kim Jung Un

It took almost two and a half years for SARS-CoV-2 to travel from the Chinese city of Wuhan to the North Korean capital Pyongyang.

That’s according to the North Korean government, which until late last week had firmly denied any confirmed cases of the virus within their borders—a distinction that had made them one of only three countries worldwide to have remained uncontaminated by the pandemic to date.

But Thursday saw state media confirm that an “obscure febrile disease” had infected 350,000 people nationwide, in what experts believe is almost certainly an outbreak of COVID-19. Then, three days later, state media confirmed a total of more than 1.2 million people across the country reporting symptoms of a “fever.”

As of Sunday, 564,860 people are being treated for this “fever,” which appears to have been spreading explosively throughout North Korea since late April. At least 50 people are confirmed to have died, eight of them on Sunday alone, in what is almost certainly a gross underestimate of mortalities by local authorities. One expert told VICE World News last week he expects “mass death” to occur.

In the space of just 72 hours, North Korea’s epidemiological status has shifted from a self-proclaimed success story to a public health catastrophe. Given the so-called hermit kingdom’s notorious secrecy and extremely limited testing capacity, the exact case numbers are impossible to quantify, and these official figures almost certainly represent the low end of the scale. 

One thing is certain though: North Korea, one of only two countries in the world along with Eritrea not to have rolled out COVID vaccines, is uniquely vulnerable to a viral outbreak of this calibre. The reality is that there is little to no pre-existing COVID immunity among North Koreans, the BA.2 Omicron variant that was detected in Pyongyang last week is five to six times more transmissible than the original strain found in Wuhan, and the nation’s crumbling public health infrastructure is among the world’s worst. 

In the coming weeks and months, experts are worried the situation could spiral into a complete humanitarian disaster.

“You’re just looking at a perfect storm: it’s like China’s COVID zero, except your entire population is extremely compromised and vulnerable and set up for a disaster,” Ethan Jewell, a Seoul-based data correspondent with outlet NK News, which provides news and analysis about North Korea, told VICE World News. 

“People are not vaccinated, people are in poor health, and the government doesn’t seem to have a responsible approach to prevent all this to begin with.”

How did we get here?

While global pundits continue to question whether these are in fact North Korea’s first cases of COVID, it remains unclear how this particular strain entered and spread through the country in the first place. The nation was one of the first to seal its foreign borders in January 2020 and grind international trade to a standstill—including with primary patron China—while even before the pandemic, citizens within North Korea were subject to severe movement restrictions.

The prevailing theory seems to be that the virus did in fact cross the border from northeastern China, which in recent months has been ravaged by its own biggest outbreaks to date. Though trade between the two nations was abruptly suspended in early 2020, there have been multiple reports of people illegally moving back and forth across sections of the 880-mile border—marked by a river that in some areas is only a few metres wide—smuggling goods in a bid to provide essential resources to impoverished and famished North Korean communities.

Several experts have suggested that these smuggling networks may have funnelled the virus into North Korea by creating a porous border and facilitating transnational contact.

Some have further pointed to a recent, potential superspreader event—a military parade held in Pyongyang on April 25 to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the army. It was attended by several thousand unmasked people, including numerous soldiers who have since tested positive

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