Does North Korea Really Have 0 Coronavirus Cases?

The true number of coronavirus cases in North Korea is unknown, but the government there has frequently claimed there are none. Earlier this week, the government said it tested 740 people for the virus, but all tests came back negative. Still, there has been evidence that the government has taken the coronavirus seriously, educating its residents on the virus. There has also reportedly been "panic buying" of food in Prongyang.

Edwin Salvador, the World Health Organization's representative to North Korea, told the Associated Press the government reported to the WHO that all 740 recently run tests through April 17 came back negative. However, the government also told the WHO it released more than 25,000 people from quarantine since Dec. 31, Salvador said. The data came as North Korea has claimed it has no coronavirus cases, while reports of mass quarantining have surfaced.

"Pyongyang's state media reported that 7,000 people were being held for 'medical monitoring,' but the extent of any outbreak is unknown," Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation, told Fox News. "Some South Korean NGOs with access to sources in North Korea report that major cities in North Korea have been hit by the coronavirus epidemic, and many regions suffer from a shortage of daily necessities. They report that people are starving to death in both border regions and inland areas, and more than 100 North Korean soldiers have died of the coronavirus."

North Korea's border with China has been closed since January, when cases there began to skyrocket, reports Bloomberg. However, General Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, told reporters in March the U.S. is "fairly certain" there have been coronavirus cases there due to a drop in North Korean military activity. In addition, NK News is reporting "panic buying" of food in the country's capital city, according to people who live there. It does not appear to be linked to reports of leader Kim Jong-un's health.

While North Korea may be telling international organizations it has no coronavirus cases, Radio Free Asia reported Friday that authorities told citizens there were confirmed cases as recently as the end of March in three regions: Pyongyang, South Hwanghe province and North Hamgyong province. RFA cited a source in Pyongyang and one in Ryanggang province, who said government lectures on the coronavirus have been taking place.

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"The speaker at the lecture publicly stated that there were confirmed coronavirus patients among [the people]," one source told RFA, reports Newsweek. The source was skeptical that cases could be confined to three regions in different parts of the country. "If the virus spread from the northern end of the country [near the border with China] to the southern end, it means it has to have spread across the entire country," the source speculated.

The North Korean military has likely seen an outbreak, reports the New York Times. Army Day events on Feb. 8 were suddenly canceled. A chief of the military's general staff was reportedly quarantined for 20 days in February, and military drills have been stopped for a month. In March, Daily NK reported about 180 soldiers stationed near the Chinese border died of COVID-19 symptoms in January and February.