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North Korea Facing Domestic COVID Outbreaks, Economic Troubles

North Korea is currently facing one of its worst economic years ever, and the situation does not seem likely to improve any time soon. With the China-DPRK border still officially closed, trade has practically come to a standstill and the country’s already vulnerable economy has been dealt a huge blow.

What’s worse, besides the economic difficulties, North Korea may also be facing a serious COVID-19 problem. With medicines unable to be imported from China, North Korea’s ability to deal with potential COVID-19 outbreaks is dangerously lacking. And Kim Jong-Un’s recent public announcement of the country’s first suspected case may point to a wider cry for help directed at the international community.

With the borders closed since January and various virus outbreaks reportedly already underway, North Korea’s domestic situation is worth paying closer attention to.

An economic crisis

The Sino-North Korean border has been closed since the end of January and basic supplies have become increasingly difficult to find in local marketplaces. The food situation has become especially dire since the beginning of May, with many people eating only 1-2 meals per day. As a result, the central government recently gave permission to provincial governments to release the food reserves that are meant for wartime use, according to sources inside the country.

This helps illustrate just how serious the food shortages have become, for the government to feel the need to use reserves meant for wartime during a time of peace. But the situation is indeed that bad, with many residents, especially in border towns, unable to make a living due to the border closure and strict prohibition on smuggling.

Besides the food shortages, the country is also facing a shortage of manure, crucial for farming. As a result, North Korean authorities recently decided to mobilize large groups of people to solve this shortage, which has been exacerbated by the continued halt of China-DPRK trade.


Authorities in one border province have significantly increased the quota of grass each farmer needs to collect. Each farmer in the province typically has to collect around 1.5 tons of grass each year, but the quota has now increased to two tons this year. Residents must collect the grass and then compost it to make manure.

Increased COVID fears

Despite maintaining that the country had zero cases for months, North Korea’s leadership recently announced its first suspected COVID-19 case. According to the country’s leader, Kim Jong-Un, the disease may have been imported into the country by a defector who fled South Korea back into the North on July 19. According to North Korean state media reports, the defector displayed symptoms of COVID-19 and was being held at a separate quarantine facility and monitored further.

This incident resulted in Pyongyang implementing a “maximum emergency system” aimed at dealing with COVID-19. The timing of such a decision may suggest the country is facing a larger outbreak and may be using this defector as an excuse to qualify for much-needed international aid. Sources inside the country are also skeptical about the government’s blame of the defector for bringing in the disease and argue numerous suspected cases of COVID-19 have already been identified in towns bordering both China and Russia.

In fact, various sources inside the country have recently reported the spread of COVID-19 throughout various provinces. According to ASIAPRESS reporting, North Korean authorities have started informing residents for the first time of coronavirus outbreaks. Sources say that infections have already been confirmed in at least three of the country’s nine provinces. Traveling between provinces has become practically impossible and strict controls of the movement of people and goods are being enforced.

Increased inspections at borders to crack down on illegal smuggling activities have also become commonplace due to the threat of COVID-19 entering the country. The central government has ordered border patrol guards to treat the pandemic as the country’s “main enemy” while guarding the country against the spread of the contagion across the border.

Besides this, a Daily NK report of July 30 also suggests that North Korean authorities ordered a lockdown of a major port after coronavirus-infected goods were detected among (illegal) imports that arrived in mid-July. The government has banned any other goods from entering the port and dispatched disease control officials from the central government to the site.

Other health risks

But COVID-19 is not the only health problem that North Korea is currently dealing with. According to various reports, avian influenza has recently become yet another thorn in the government’s side. One outbreak of avian influenza already led to mass deaths at eight chicken farms. As a result, authorities in charge of animal disease prevention throughout the country have been instructed to closely monitor animals raised by people at their homes.

Besides influenza, the death rate of North Koreans suffering from chronic illness is also expected to rise this year, according to a July 31 report by South Korean media. The health status of many North Koreans will continue to deteriorate if the borders remain closed for much longer and if trade with China does not resume soon. This poses yet another serious problem given that about 80 percent of all deaths in North Korea are caused by chronic diseases, as per the report.

Rocky path ahead

Things are unlikely to get better for North Korea any time soon. It remains unclear whether more aid will be able to enter the country or when trade with China will finally resume. Besides economic and health issues, North Korea may also be facing severe problems due to flooding and heavy rains. Various parts of South Korea have suffered record-breaking floods and it’s highly unlikely that North Korea will remain unscathed.

As such, the second half of 2020 might turn out to be some of the most difficult months the North Korean population has ever had to endure.