North Korea’s leaders continue to claim they have not had a single case of COVID-19, but other sources, such as Christian activist Tim Peters, indicate that North Korea not only has cases of the virus but also that its handling of the pandemic has been reprehensible. Reports indicate that the way the country is quarantining people with the virus is leading to deaths that could have been prevented.
“One of the more alarming pieces of information that has come our way is that the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] government is providing absolutely minimal or no food or medicine to those who are interred there,” said Tim Peters, who is a co-founder of the Christian NGO Helping Hands Korea.
According to a report from the South China Morning Post (SCMP), it is possible that people in North Korea are dying from starvation and poor medical care after being quarantined with symptoms of COVID-19.
“My sense is that the situation pertaining to COVID-19 inside North Korea is gravely serious,” Peters said. Helping Hands serves “the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of North Koreans in crisis,” by supplying basic necessities to the impoverished, advocating for religious freedom, and providing an “underground railroad” to those trying to escape the country.
Tim Peters: A ‘serious’ and ‘alarming’ Situation
Tim Peters says that because those infected with the virus aren’t receiving proper care or food, “it’s up to the families of the quarantined citizens to come to the edge of the camps and bring food to keep quarantined relatives alive along with whatever health-related aids that they can muster, whether it be purchased medicines sold in the jangmadang markets, or even herbal home remedies gathered from mountainsides. My sources indicate many in these camps have already died, not only from the pandemic but also from starvation and related causes.”
From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea has claimed it has had no cases of the virus and reiterated this claim as recently as the beginning of October. The authoritarian government has attempted to prevent the virus from spreading by shutting its borders, closing schools, stopping trade with China, and quarantining thousands of people.
Because of these drastic measures, Harvard Medical School lecturer Kee Park told SCMP it is at least “plausible” the novel coronavirus has not yet made it to the country. Park has made many humanitarian trips to North Korea and said, “As you know the country has essentially locked itself shut very early in January and the bordering Chinese provinces do not have many cases.”
Many, however, think that COVID-19 has already entered North Korea. The World Health Organization says there are over 5,000 “suspected” cases of the virus in the country. Park observed, and others agree, that an outbreak of COVID-19 would wreak havoc in North Korea. The sanctions other countries have imposed mean that North Korean citizens do not have access to the medical resources needed to combat the virus.
Chronic hunger is another contributing factor to the vulnerability of the citizens of North Korea. “Prevailing and chronic malnutrition inside North Korea automatically and severely weakens the immune system of a huge swathe of the DPRK population,” said Tim Peters. “In short, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.” He also said that reports about the quarantine camps corroborate stories he has heard of North Korea’s prison camps. It is not uncommon for people in these prison camps to die of starvation if they do not have outside assistance from their families.
A pastor named David Lee who lives in Seoul (the capital of South Korea) and works with defectors from North Korea told SCMP that North Korea does not have the resources to test for and track the virus. Lee has spoken to people who are still in touch with their relatives in North Korea. These refugees say that those who display symptoms of COVID-19 are “being forced into isolation, or being boarded up in their homes without food or other support and left to die.”
SCMP was careful to note how difficult it is to verify accounts from within North Korea, as well as the fact that some defectors from North Korea have told false or exaggerated stories in the past. At the same time, North Korea is well-known for its tyrannical government and egregious human rights violations. In 2020, the country made the number one spot on Open Doors’ World Watch List for the eighteenth year in a row. The list, published annually, ranks the top 50 countries in the world according to how severely they persecute Christians.
Open Doors describes Christian persecution in North Korea as “extreme” and says, “If North Korean Christians are discovered, they are deported to labor camps as political criminals or even killed on the spot.” Gathering to worship “is nearly impossible unless it’s done in complete secrecy.” A recent report from the watchdog group Korea Future Initiative documented extensive religious freedom violations in the country.
A North Korean man who trusted in Jesus because of a courageous pastor told Voice of the Martyrs, “To speak the name of God can lead to soldiers coming in the night. And there will be no trial. No journalists will write about you, and no one will ever dare ask where you have gone.”