COVID-19 and North Korea Update - April 20, 2020

April 20, 2020

This is the fifth in an ongoing series of updates by NCNK Executive Director Keith Luse about what is known about the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic in North Korea, and the international humanitarian response. You can find our previous updates here. NCNK is continuing to monitor the situation through ongoing contact with a wide range of information sources on recent developments.  Our latest summary is below.


How are UN humanitarian operations in North Korea being managed?

Due to DPRK-imposed restrictions connected to the COVID-19, Mr. Frode Mauring, the UN's Resident Coordinator for North Korea has been unable to return to Pyongyang up to this time.  In his absence, Myo Zin Nyunt, the UNICEF representative in Pyongyang serves as Acting Resident Coordinator, while Mr. Mauring works remotely and engages at the Headquarters' level.

Are active discussions underway between North  Korean and UN officials?

Yes, UN representatives interact with officials of the Ministry of Public Health and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Efforts are underway to develop more timely protocols for the delivery of international assistance, as well as the ability of UN and other international workers to travel in and out of the DPRK on a regular basis. These efforts are also made with DPRK representatives in third countries. In addition to the 12 to 15 UN personnel in North Korea, just over 10 persons representing European humanitarian NGOs remain in the country.

Is COVID-19 assistance from the international NGO community making its way into North Korea?

Yes, shipments from at least three organizations have crossed into North Korea from China. Shipments are believed to remain in quarantine for 10 to 14 days after their arrival in North Korea. It remains unknown when North Korean officials will allow representatives of aid organizations to access the supplies and equipment and monitor their use.

How is the international NGO assistance making its way into North Korea?

By ship (Dalian - Nampo) and truck (Dandong - Sinuiju).  Reportedly, the amount of carrier traffic currently underway represents only a fraction of the normal truck and ship activity.  Initial reports suggest that the train system has begun gradually transporting cargo containers as well. The slow transfer of containers from China into North Korea will negatively impact the health system's capacity to prevent and contend with COVID-19 and other related health issues. Notably seeds and fertilizer are also among the items waiting for transfer into the DPRK which may impact the timely planting of crops.

Do members of the foreign diplomatic community remain in Pyongyang?

Yes. Ambassadors from at least 13 countries, including China, Russia and the UK are in North Korea. Diplomats from other countries are also present.

Will North Korea accept COVID-19 assistance from the United States?

No. North Korea continues to decline COVID-19 related assistance from the US humanitarian NGO community.  However, North Korean officials continue to work with US NGOs and welcome their assistance on programs and projects which were underway prior to the beginning of the pandemic.

Are there cases of COVID-19 in North Korea?

The North Korean government continues to state that there are no confirmed cases in the country. However, the sense of urgency surrounding COVID-19 expressed at the recent Politburo meeting as well as through North Korean media suggests there may be more to the situation than is being publicly acknowledged. Early action closing the border, establishing a series of quarantine measures and promoting a major "anti-epidemic" strategy likely saved many lives. North Korean leaders appear to be cognizant they are faced with a situation similar to other countries in the region and worldwide - an unseen threat which poses potentially devastating consequences for the economy, social order and national security.