COVID-19 and North Korea Update #3

March 13, 2020

This is the third in a projected series of updates on what is known about the impact of the COVID19 epidemic in North Korea.

As COVID-19 intensifies in the United States and elsewhere, the North Korean response to the pandemic is fading from the headlines.  However, NCNK is continuing to monitor the situation through regular contact with a wide range of information sources on recent developments. Our latest summary is below.

Are there cases of COVID-19 in North Korea?

Given the number of reported cases in China and South Korea, which border North Korea, it's hard to imagine that North Korea is dodging the COVID-19 bullet. North Korean officials have not reported cases of COVID-19, perhaps in part because of a lack of diagnostic capability; there is uncertainty among medical and humanitarian officials as to North Korea's capability to accurately test for the disease.

Is North Korea willing to accept international assistance to combat the COVID-19 situation?

North Korea's government has conveyed conflicting messages to the international nongovernmental organization (NGO) community as to whether it would welcome COVID-19 related assistance. The Russian government says it has provided 1500 reagent test kits to the DPRK. The government of China, to the degree it has available materials and human resource bandwidth, may also be providing supplies and diagnostic technical assistance to the North.

Do North Korea's borders remain closed?

Yes, with the exception of the approved entry point from Dandong to Sinuiju. However, persons driving trucks with supplies into North Korea from Dandong are reportedly subjected to a lengthy quarantine period (and the drivers face a second quarantine requirement upon returning to Dandong). A combination of quarantine requirements by China and North Korea, along with pre-existing bureaucratic challenges within and between the two governments are delaying the shipment of critical healthcare supplies into North Korea.

Are foreign diplomats and international workers in Pyongyang still operating under quarantine conditions?

Some relaxation of quarantine conditions has occurred for expatriates residing in Pyongyang. Less than 100 foreign diplomats, international aid workers and their dependents were on the Air Koryo flight which arrived in Vladivostok from Pyongyang earlier this week.

What are the long-term consequences for North Korea if COVID-19 spreads in the country?

Potentially devastating. Aside from fatalities and lingering illness associated with disease transmission, actions taken by the North Korean government to mitigate the entry and spread of COVID-19 have effectively paused all other UN and international NGO humanitarian programs in the country. Restrictions at the border and on movement within North Korea, imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, may have unintended consequences which could disrupt preparations for the upcoming planting season, lead to food shortages and otherwise exacerbate the underlying humanitarian situation in North Korea.  

What is the status of UN and other humanitarian and development workers in North Korea?

The UN remains present and is working amidst the limitations. Any international organization operating within North Korea is doing so under increasingly difficult conditions. The few remaining international organizations remaining in the country are operating with skeleton capacity and with little or no funds remaining to cover operating costs and meet other financial obligations.

One unintended consequence of sanctions targeting North Korea has been that international financial institutions have been unwilling to facilitate the transfer of funds into North Korea, even when such transfers are for humanitarian purposes and exempt from UN sanctions. In the absence of an operational financial channel, UN agencies in North Korea and resident NGOs have relied on cash physically brought in from abroad to meet local operating and basic life expenses.  However, because humanitarian workers can no longer enter North Korea due to COVID-19 related restrictions, humanitarian staff remaining in Pyongyang have no available means to access money.

For additional information or inquiries, please contact us.