How long can an isolated and barricaded territory hold out in the face of a global pandemic? To this question worthy of a disaster movie or Last train to Busan, North Korea has just given its answer: almost two and a half years. Pyongyang has indeed reported its first case of Covid-19 infection since the start of the epidemic on Thursday, via its official agency KCNA. How the North Korean dictatorship had kept the coronavirus outside its borders so far? Was its health system prepared? Can we really believe that this is the first case? 20 minutes make the point.
How had the epidemic been avoided until then?
North Korea managed to avoid the first waves while being close to the center of the epidemic. A feat to put on the account of a great reactivity. “Officially, North Korea closed its borders on January 1, 2020, it was the first country to do so,” notes Antoine Bondaz, researcher at the foundation for strategic research. In addition to the border with South Korea, already cordoned off by the demilitarized zone, it was necessary to seal the ports as well as the long border in the north with China. A challenge, despite the restrictions that already weighed on North Korean trade.
“There are two economic streams that come from the north, one official and the other informal, with small traders who can cross the border,” explains historian Juliette Morillot, author of North Korea in 100 questions and South Korea in 100 questions at Tallandier. Despite this, the authorities managed to keep the borders tight “because there is immediate obedience”, and put in place “very quickly the wearing of masks, barrier measures”, adds the historian. At the start of the year, trade resumed with China. But even there, everything happened “in a defined area, with disinfection of the goods”, specifies Antoine Bondaz.
Was the North Korean health system ready?
One of the reasons for the rapid closure of the borders is that “the authorities know that the health system cannot withstand a massive wave”, indicates the doctor of political sciences. The development of hospitals and the updating of this health system are moreover “not the priority of the regime”, where the least won, the local currency, is devoted to defense. Also North Korea is “no more prepared today than two years ago” to face the epidemic, he fears.
In fact, the country did not vaccinate its population, refusing “the aid of Covax, which offered two million doses of AstraZeneca, and three million doses of Sinovac” offered by China, notes Juliette Morillot. “There are 25 million inhabitants, if we are not talking about tens of millions of doses it is insufficient”, calculates Antoine Bondaz, when the historian adds “the fear that accepting foreign aid will be seen as a weakness” by the population. Nevertheless, the two experts interviewed by 20 minutes admit that it is possible that part of the elite will be vaccinated, with Chinese Sinovac, or even Western vaccines. Another big hole in the North Korean health network, tests. In two years, the regime has only carried out “about 65,000 tests”, according to Juliette Morillot.
Can we believe that this is really the first case?
The case announced by the regime “corresponds” to the Omicron variant. Which is not a detail for the historian, recalling that this strain is “particularly contagious”. The confinement decided by Kim Jong-un aims to avoid an epidemic tidal wave and to “protect the elites”. The appearance of the virus in the capital precisely arouses the suspicions of Antoine Bondaz. “We could have understood if it was at the border, via trafficking…” For the two experts, there is therefore a chain of contaminations to be traced.
But this is not quite the first time that there have been fears about the presence of Covid-19 in North Korea. “In July 2020, the city of Kaesong was completely confined after a defector passed from the South to the North”, recalls Juliette Morillot. Similarly, alerts “adjoined to confinements due to sandstorms” have sown doubt. The historian drives the point home with “massive imports of protective suits” in April, just before “the complete cessation of the movement of goods and trains with China after cases [recensés] in Dandong, a border town.