Asia Pacific

Outbreak on North Korea border raises doubts over its coronavirus toll

Bloomberg

China has put a city near the North Korea border under lockdown due to an increase in coronavirus infections, raising more questions about an outbreak in the isolated country.

Chinese authorities banned all nonessential transportation in the city of Shulan in the northeastern province of Jilin, while residential compounds and villages were closed, the official China Central Television reported Sunday. Students who had already returned to schools were required to study from home. The city raised its virus threat alert level to high risk from medium, Jilin province said.

North Korea shut its borders in January when cases surged in China, and has yet to confirm any COVID-19 infections. Yet the U.S. military said it suspects North Korea has cases, and Kim Jong Un’s regime has accepted help from other nations to fight the virus.

President Xi Jinping over the weekend expressed his willingness to provide support to North Korea in fighting the pandemic in reply to a verbal message from North Korea’s leader, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported Saturday, without offering details. China has sent an unspecified number of COVID-19 test kits to its neighbor, according to NK News, which specializes in reporting on North Korea. Russia has also offered help, in addition to aid organizations who have brought in medical supplies.

Last week, Kim sent his first formal message to China since reemerging from an almost three-week public absence that raised questions about his health, with some reports saying that he was social distancing to avoid catching COVID-19. In his visit to a fertilizer plant on May 1, a few of his guards could be seen wearing protective masks.

Kim praised Xi Jinping for his “success” in managing the coronavirus, saying the Chinese leader was “seizing a chance of victory in the war against the unprecedented epidemic.” North Korea’s state media reported Sunday that its leader Kim received a message from Xi, pledging cooperation in “combating the pandemic.”

North Korea’s state media over the weekend said Kim sent a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin to mark the end of its World War II fight in Europe, and he wished the Russian leader victory in his fight against the virus.

While little is known about North Korea’s efforts to combat COVID-19, some signs have emerged over the months. North Korea has reported more than 5,400 people were released from quarantine as of March. In late April, consumers in Pyongyang were “panic buying” food staples, causing some store shelves to empty, according to NK News, which said the purchases may be due to stricter coronavirus measures.

A crumbling medical system, trade sanctions and decades of economic mismanagement have left more than 40 percent of North Korea’s population chronically undernourished and vulnerable to disease. That risks any wider coronavirus outbreak turning into a humanitarian disaster that could lead to mass deaths: In the 1990s, a famine killed an estimated 240,000 to 3.5 million people.

Unlike North Korea’s heavily militarized border with South Korea, the country’s 880-mile (1,420-kilometer) border with China is porous — and the black-market traders who have crossed for years from both sides could be a source bringing the virus into North Korea. The confirmed case count in the two biggest Chinese provinces bordering North Korea — Liaoning and Jilin — have been relatively low so far to total less than 300.

On Sunday, China reported an increase in both new and asymptomatic cases. There were 14 new coronavirus cases on May 9, including those in Shulan, the largest daily increase this month for the nation, according to Bloomberg calculations based on official data. As of Saturday, Jilin province has reported a total of 105 locally transmitted COVID-19 cases and 19 imported ones.

There were 11 new coronavirus cases in Shulan on Saturday, local health authorities said. The city is investigating the source of the infection after a police employee came down with COVID-19, the South China Morning Post said in a separate report Saturday.

The 12 locally transmitted cases reported on May 9 were the highest since March 11, Mi Feng, a spokesman for National Health Commission, said at a briefing on Sunday. The commission said the country should keep stay on high alert and avoid gatherings.

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