ALL NEWS

North Korean defectors, experts question zero virus claim

Apr 20, 2020, 5:24 AM
FILE - In this Feb. 28, 2020, file photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean lead...
FILE - In this Feb. 28, 2020, file photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, inspects the military drill of units of the Korean People's Army, with soldiers shown wearing face masks. North Korea says it has zero coronavirus infections, but experts doubt it and say it’s likely the virus has already spread in the country. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. Korean language watermark on image as provided by source reads: "KCNA" which is the abbreviation for Korean Central News Agency. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)
(Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — As a doctor in North Korea during the SARS outbreak and flu pandemic, Choi Jung Hun didn’t have much more than a thermometer to decide who should be quarantined.

Barely paid, with no test kits and working with antiquated equipment, if anything, he and his fellow doctors in the northeastern city of Chongjin were often unable to determine who had the disease, even after patients died, said Choi, who fled to South Korea in 2012.

Local health officials weren’t asked to confirm cases or submit them to the central government in Pyongyang, Choi said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Experts say North Korea’s reluctance to admit major outbreaks of disease, its wrecked medical infrastructure and its extreme sensitivity to any potential threat to Kim Jong Un’s authoritarian rule means that Pyongyang is likely handling the current coronavirus pandemic in the same manner.

This has led to widespread skepticism over the nation’s claim to have zero infections.

“It’s a lie,” Choi, 45, said. “Year after year, and in every season, diverse infectious diseases repeatedly occur but North Korea says there isn’t any outbreak.”

Outsiders strongly suspect that coronavirus, which has infected more than 2.4 million people, has already spread to North Korea because it shares a long, porous border with China, its most important trading partner and biggest aid benefactor. China is where the first known coronavirus cases were reported in December.

North Korea, which has quarantined tens of thousands and delayed the school year as precautionary steps, officially sealed its border with China in January, but smuggling across the frontier still likely happens. Activist groups in Seoul said they’ve been told by contacts in North Korea that people had died of the virus. Those claims cannot be independently verified.

While there have been no reliable outside reports of mass infections in North Korea yet, the country’s tight control on information allows few foreign experts to assert with an authority that the North’s quarantine regime has been successful. As seen in Singapore, the coronavirus can surge again, and North Korea’s powerful Politburo said last week it would further bolster anti-epidemic steps.

“I think a considerable number of people could die. But that won’t be disclosed to the outside world because the North is not even able to diagnose patients with (the coronavirus),” said Kim Sin-gon, a professor at Korea University College of Medicine in Seoul. He said North Korea is struggling to treat seriously ill patients, and noted U.N. reports that about 40% of its 24 million people are undernourished.

Russia’s foreign ministry said in February it donated 1,500 coronavirus test kits to North Korea, and observers say similar kits have also been shipped there from China. Some relief agencies, including UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders, said they sent gloves, masks, goggles and hand hygiene products to North Korea.

North Korea’s main newspaper recently called its public health system “the most superior in the world” and said that Kim Jong Un’s devotion to improving it is the reason why there are no infections.

North Korea’s socialist free medical service collapsed in the mid-1990s amid economic chaos and a famine that killed an estimated hundreds of thousands. In recent years, Kim Jong Un has built new hospitals and modernized some medical facilities as the economy improved, but most of the medical benefits still largely go to his ruling elite, experts say.

Dozens of refugees interviewed in a recent study said they felt the North’s health care system has become poorer under Kim Jong Un, according to Min Ha-ju, a North Korean refugee-turned-researcher. She said the gap between the haves and the havenots in terms of medical service is deepening because a crumbled state rationing system has led to a burgeoning private economy.

Choi, the doctor who worked in North Korea, said his monthly salary was the equivalent of about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of rice and that he received cigarettes from patients in return for telling them what medicine they should buy at markets.

Cho Chung-hui, a former local North Korean official who is now with the Seoul-based NGO Good Farmers, said he gave cash to doctors to cure gastritis and enteritis.

Choi and Cho said measles, chickenpox, cholera, typhoid, paratyphoid, hepatitis and tuberculosis repeatedly swept through North Korea when they were there. Choi said he wore no masks, gloves or protective gear during outbreaks and used equipment manufactured in the 1960-70s.

During the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, Choi said hundreds of people in Chongjin died after suffering flu-like symptoms during eight months of intense quarantine.

“But no (doctors) can dare to diagnose the dead with SARS. There wasn’t an order to confirm the cause of their deaths, and we didn’t have diagnostic kits,” said Choi, now a researcher at a Korea University-affiliated institute.

During a 2009 flu pandemic, Choi said he didn’t have diagnostic kits and asked patients with fevers what antibiotics they had used before placing some under quarantine. After many patients died, he speculated their deaths were likely linked to the flu.

In a highly unusual admission of a disease outbreak apparently aimed at winning outside aid, North Korea’s state media said in December 2009 that nine people in Pyongyang and the northwestern border town of Sinuiju had contracted the flu.

Some say North Korea may not have big clusters of infections because it doesn’t have densely populated cities and strictly restricts freedom of movement and association. But many others disagree, saying all North Koreans are required to attend diverse state-organized group activities and a lack of adequate sanitation could worsen outbreaks. There are also questions about the workings of North Korea’s quarantine campaign.

The North’s medical system is like a “a broken rusty pistol which doesn’t even have a bullet because it hasn’t been maintained for a long time,” Choi said.

Today’s Top Stories

All News

Trucks are lined up for sale at Low Book Sales in Lindon on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. Most new vehicl...
Heather Kelly

Automatic emergency braking should only be used as a last resort

AAA of Utah says automatic emergency braking systems have limitations and should only be used as a last resort to prevent a crash.
1 day ago
Ballpark Station closes Thursday night due to a debris on the tracks. Photo credit: Salt Lake City ...
Devin Oldroyd

Utah Transit Authority closes Ballpark Station due to debris on tracks

Ballpark Station closes Thursday night due to a debris on the tracks.
1 day ago
Utah airbnb rentals rising interest rates affecting millennial home buyers...
Mark Jones

Eviction filings on the rise in Utah, compared to this time last year

The Rental Housing Association of Utah says eviction filings in Utah saw a 46% increase in the first six months of this year as compared to the same time in 2021.
1 day ago
(Getty Images)...
Mark Jones

21-year-old man sentenced for multiple sex crimes

A 21-year-old man was sentenced Wednesday for four sex crimes he pled guilty to in August.
1 day ago
university of utah...
Mark Jones

University of Utah Health among the nation’s top 10 for 13th year in row

The 2022 Vizient Bernard A. Birnbaum, MD, Quality Leadership Award has ranked University of Utah Health in the top 10 for the 13th straight year.
1 day ago
utah employment...
Alejandro Lucero

Annual Golden Key Awards presented to local businesses

Golden Key Awards recognize the people and businesses who believe in Utahns with disabilities, said a press release. Nine businesses were recognized today.
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Young woman receiving laser treatment...
Form Derm Spa

How facial plastic surgery and skincare are joining forces

Facial plastic surgery is not only about looking good but about feeling good too. The medical team at Form Spa are trained to help you reach your aesthetic outcomes through surgery and through skincare and dermatology, too.
large group of friends tohether in a park having fun...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

What differentiates BYU’s MBA program from other MBA programs

Commitment to service is at the heart of BYU’s MBA program, which makes it stand out among other MBA programs across the country.
a worker with a drill in an orange helmet installs a door in the house...
Price's Guaranteed Doors

Home improvement tip: Increase the value of your home by weatherproofing doors

Make sure your home is comfortable before the winter! Seasonal maintenance keeps your home up to date. Read our tips on weatherproofing doors.
Curb Appeal...
Price's Guaranteed Doors

How to have the best of both worlds for your house | Home security and curb appeal

Protect your home and improve its curb appeal with the latest security solutions like beautiful garage doors and increased security systems.
A paper reading IRS, internal revenue service is pictured...
Jordan Wilcox

The best strategies for dealing with IRS tax harassment | You have options!

Learn how to deal with IRS tax harassment. This guide will teach you how to stop IRS phone calls and letters, and how to handle an IRS audit.
spend a day at Bear Lake...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

You’ll love spending the day at Bear Lake | How to spend a day at Bear Lake

Bear Lake is a place that needs to be experienced. Spend a day at Bear Lake.
North Korean defectors, experts question zero virus claim