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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) released a rare statement Thursday boasting of the country’s supposed success fighting COVID-19 and amplifying praise coming out of China that the DPRK is a “clean land” with no coronavirus infections.
The statement comes as North Korea also elsewhere in state media on Friday continued to claim there are no cases of the coronavirus in the country and that more individuals have been released from quarantine, despite no mentions of actual testing for the disease.
A U.S. military commander as well as some analysts and outlets using sources in the DPRK, however, have in recent weeks said they suspected cases of the virus in North Korea that have either not been tested or which the government is not reporting.
“Many people are amazed to see the DPRK free of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) until today when the damage by its infection continues to spread on a global scale to over 160 countries and regions of the world, causing more than 7,900 deaths,” Tuesday’s MFA statement began.
It then summarized both an article written by researcher Gao Hao Rong with the Beijing-based Oriental Think Tank (OTT) as well as unattributed statements pulled from articles from “various Chinese internet homepages.”
The MFA’s statement, titled “‘Clean Land’ Free of Infection,” took the phrase from Gao’s article titled “North Korean epidemic prevention: It’s not easy for one side to be a “clean land,” published to the Chinese website Eastday.com on March 15.
The MFA paraphrased the OTT article’s praise of North Korea’s quick action in late January to ban travelers from China and institute strict domestic prevention policies in their “peculiar” Korean socialist style.
Gao in the full version also praised Kim Jong Un’s personal response, noted Kim’s late January promises of sending aid and funds to Chinese President Xi Jinping, but also falsely claimed that North Korea has not requested international assistance itself in fighting COVID-19.
A World Health Organization (WHO) executive said in mid-February that while he had not yet seen signs the virus had reached North Korea, related equipment and assistance with virus testing would be sent to the DPRK.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) also said at the time that North Korea had made requests for material and other support from abroad, and COVID-19 test kits have been promised by both the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the Russian government.
UNICEF claimed on Tuesday that protective equipment is expected to be shipped to North Korea this week, but NK News understands it has yet to arrive, and the status of donated test kits is not clear.
In the section summarizing Chinese internet comments, the MFA amplified the idea that North Korea has reacted better to the coronavirus pandemic than “the so-called ‘advanced countries’” South Korea and the U.S. by quickly shutting its borders.
It concluded by claiming the WHO and other experts have “expressed surprise at the fact that the infectious disease could not find its way into the DPRK,” likely referring to the WHO statement made in mid-February.
“The MFA does issue unattributed articles like this every once in a while, but they’re almost always about DPRK foreign policy positions, and they tend to be longer,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News’s sister site NK Pro.
She said the MFA’s release of a “non-foreign policy issue like this is odd” and that it is “clearly the MFA trying to publicize North Korea’s allegedly successful quarantine.”
“It’d be worth watching how the MFA’s messaging strategy may change, especially now that Ri Son Gwon is the new chief,” Lee added, also referring to another abnormal statement from the department earlier this month that was similarly exclusively released by the MFA and not other DPRK outlets.
NO CASES, NO TESTS
Meanwhile, North Korea’s ruling party daily the Rodong Sinmun on Friday continued to claim that “the virus has not yet entered our country.”
The article added that health officials have pushed education on the “danger that would incur severe and irreversible consequences if careless only for a moment” and letting the virus take hold domestically.
North Korea has yet to release any information on actually testing citizens for COVID-19, however, instead only referring to “medical observation” and “examination work” to help determine if patients are not showing symptoms and can be released from quarantine.
But the phrasing has been left vague and the DPRK has yet to publicize any domestic testing numbers or references to tests despite state media printing other countries’ testing numbers on a daily basis.
As for those quarantined for displaying suspect symptoms, the Rodong on Friday announced another round of individuals have been released from a few named provinces, including 1,500 from South Phyongan, 1,090 from North Phyongan, and 1,430 from Kangwon province.
The article also said only three foreigners remain under quarantine in the country and that the rest have been released.
According to numbers compiled by NK News, DPRK state media has claimed in recent weeks that 8360 out of 9950 total quarantined individuals have been released, though total figures for those provinces not reported are unknown, and none could be independently verified.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham