North Korea panic: Why Kim Jong-un’s state ‘faces real danger’ amid national emergency

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Kim Jong-un has called for citizens to “mobilise to reverse damage” caused by 50 consecutive days of torrential rainfall, which concluded last Wednesday but led to widespread flooding. The Korean Central News Agency claimed that 154 square miles of agricultural land had been destroyed, 16,680 homes and 630 other buildings damaged. Analysts believe North Korea is in desperate need of “great outside support” but it seems the hermit kingdom’s ruler is yet to reach out to the international community. This isolationist approach mirrors the response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 21.6 million people worldwide. The nation is yet to confirm its first case, despite having enforced lockdown restrictions in Kaesong, near the South Korean border, and reportedly testing tens of thousands of citizens. Experts fear a natural disaster of this scale could expose an already “extremely vulnerable” population to COVID-19.

North Koreans are feared to be at additional risk of coronavirus due widespread famine, a “lack of health vaccine infrastructure” and viruses that have been “eradicated pretty much everywhere else in the world”.

Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) expert Victor Cha warned that “drug resistant strains of tuberculosis”, which are rife within the country, along with other troubling conditions make citizens especially vulnerable. 

He told ‘The Impossible State’ podcast in April: “Here in the United States, we face a crisis among a population that is generally well fed, has had the full regiment of vaccines and things like that.

“In North Korea, you’re talking about a population that is still suffering from one to two million metric tonne food shortages every year.

“It is already a vulnerable population, we talk about people [in the US] with preexisting conditions and people over the age of 60 or 70 to be vulnerable and compromised. 

“But you could say that about the entire North Korean population of 25.5 million people – this is a population, which if this virus was there could do some really horrible damage.”

The concern has been exemplified in recent months by the secretive state not announcing any coronavirus cases. 

Last week, they reopened the border city of Kaesong, which was locked down for three weeks where they claimed a defector showed symptoms after an illegal crossing back into North Korea.

Despite the nation’s extreme isolation from the rest of the world, Mr Cha felt it was “very hard to believe” that no one had tested positive for COVID-19.

He said: “This country sits between two of the first outbreak countries in Asia – South Korea and China.

“There’s a unique transmission factor through China, which is about the only country that North Korea trades with and allows cross-border traffic with, so it’s hard to believe there are no cases. 

“And the consequences are real because this is a country that has absolutely no health infrastructure to speak of and there is a real danger that it could do some serious damage in the country.”

In April, North Korea announced that they had quarantined 10,000 people but adamantly maintained none of them had coronavirus. 

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Mr Cha explained that you “can’t really believe what the government says” due to the nation’s careful management of its image and choice to only release heavily censored propaganda.

Typically pleas for help to the outside world are recognised through bodies such as UNICEF, the World Health Organisation and other humanitarian NGOs. 

Mr Cha added: “It’s a real problem because if there’s an outbreak of COVID-19, for example in the capital city of Pyongyang, with the absence of any real health infrastructure…  it will spread pretty rapidly and people are going to die pretty quickly.

“That could really have an effect on the overall regime’s overall coherence.”

Extreme measures have been deployed to try to discover the truth because “nobody has any sense of how bad” the suspected outbreak is nor the volume of testing within the state.

Mr Cha continued: “We are trying with commercial satellite imagery to see if we can see anything around hospitals or to be even more gruesome crematories – things of that nature to see if we can get a sense of what’s going on but it’s a black box.”

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