Why North Korea could be a 'long-term incubator' for coronavirus

An expert on North Korea has warned the country could be an incubator for the deadly coronavirus with speculation hundreds of deaths are being covered up by the regime.

Australian National University Professor Leszek Buszynski – who studies military security and nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula – told Yahoo News Australia there was a lot of speculation about coronavirus in North Korea, which borders with China where the virus was believed to be born.

The autocratic regime has yet to declare any coronavirus cases.

He claimed considerable trade had been going on across the border and North Korea may have been infected before it quarantined shipments and introduced measures to quarantine foreign diplomats earlier this year.

“South Korean press reports something like 180 North Korean soldiers have died from the coronavirus and another group of several thousand have been quarantined,” Professor Buszynski said.

“There’s this speculation because North Korea has a 40 per cent malnourished rate that makes them exceptionally vulnerable.

“Due to this weakened state there is speculation this is affecting the North Korean military.”

Kim Jong Un ‘not seen in weeks’

Professor Buszynski said there were reports the country’s dictator Kim Jong Un was avoiding the capital of Pyongyang as he’s afraid of catching the virus.

“He hasn’t been seen in public for several weeks now,” he said.

“So far what we have is speculation the regime wants to persuade people it has everything under control. If it hasn’t it means it will lose the reputation of the all powerful, all mighty and so forth.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pictured holding his black fedora.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has not been seen for weeks. Source: Getty

“It will not admit to any outbreaks of the coronavirus because that’s very important in sense of self-esteem.

“There is some speculation in South Korea the north could be a massive incubator of the coronavirus as receiving possible infectious cases from both China and South Korea could lead to a massive outbreak.”

So far South Korea has recorded more than 8000 coronavirus cases and about 80 deaths. In China there have been over 80,000 confirmed cases of the virus and more than 3200 deaths.

The Ryugyong Hotel skyscraper pictured in Pyongyang against a blue sky. Source: Getty
The Ryugyong Hotel skyscraper in Pyongyang. Source: Getty

North Korea ‘won’t cooperate’ with the globe

Professor Buszynski said North Korea is unlikely to cooperate with the rest of the world, potentially creating a massive infection risk.

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“We don’t know yet, but it could pan out into a very dangerous situation. On the other hand it may not because so far it’s basically been speculation.

“They have to cooperate with WHO and UNICEF – who wants to send teams there to protect children – but it goes against the regime. They simply don’t want to admit they can’t handle it themselves.

“There was a time in the past when they had a great famine 20 years ago and received food aid but phased it out because it didn’t want to admit help.”

An official from the anti-epidemic headquarters disinfects a tramcar amid the coronavirus outbreak.
An official from the Mangyongdae District emergency anti-epidemic headquarters disinfects a tramcar to prevent the spread of the COVID-19. Source: Getty

Professor Buszynski said there could be a coronavirus explosion like in Italy and if it reached North Korea it could be a dangerous situation.

“That has me concerned,” he said.

Worst case scenario behind suspected ‘cover up’

If there were a large number of infections the North Korean healthcare system simply couldn’t cope, Professor Buszynski said.

“They don’t have what is a necessary intensive care unit and won’t be able to handle cases of coronavirus outbreaks.

“Infections could rise dramatically and could be more deaths. Unfortunately deaths do not concern the regime.

“They weren’t concerned 20 years ago about the deaths by famine caused by food shortages. The most important thing for the regime is to maintain an appearance of control and to enforce these controls.

Pictured is an employee disinfecting public spaces at Pyongyang International Airport amid the coronavirus outbreak.
An employee disinfecting public spaces at Pyongyang International Airport amid an outbreak of the COVID-19. Source: Getty

“The worst case scenario is that we would find out about massive deaths in the future after some time.

“It will limit its contact with China and the south and we won’t know about the tragedy until much later.”

Professor Buszynski said North Korea may not even be able to identify coronavirus adequately and will simply classify the deaths as caused by other infections caused by influenza like pneumonia.

“Another part of the story is some time in the future when they do open the border with the south and China the virus could flow back into these two countries and rekindle another epidemic. North Korea could be a long-term incubator of the virus.”

Coronavirus could ease nuclear tensions

Professor Buszynski said the current situation with North and South Korean relations and the fierce stand-off over nuclear weapons could ease if the north’s military are struck down by coronavirus.

“It could deflect North Kora’s attention from nuclear weapons and launching more missiles in which case we could have an era of relaxed tensions with the south,” he said.

“I think it will lead to a period of relative calm on the Korean Peninsula. One of the benefits would be a situation where Kim Jong Un isn’t going to engage in nuclear testing.

A woman has her temperature taken at Pyongyang International Airport.
A woman has her temperature taken as foreign diplomats and embassy staff prepare to board a flight to Vladivostok at Pyongyang International Airport. Source: Getty

North Korea is yet to confirm a case of coronavirus but imposed strict rules in January and February.

The country was among the first to seal its border with China – its main provider of trade and aid – and has since suspended flights and train services, banned tourists, and imposed 30 days of quarantine on resident foreigners.

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