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Highly likely there are COVID-19 cases in N. Korea: Expert Updated: 2020-02-21 16:53:54 KST

North Korea's Health Minister has appeared on state TV for four days in a row this week to confirm the North is virus-free.

"According to the data we've gathered until now, thankfully, there's no patient infected with the new coronavirus in our country."

Using all of its media outlets, the North has been urging its people to do their best in their quarantine efforts.
The regime also has closed its borders with China and suspended tours.
Also in place a strict quarantine of up to 30 days on all incoming travelers.

"North Korea proudly states that it has seen no confirmed cases, and the World Health Organization says it's not dealing with any coronavirus cases in the North. But the real situation on the ground is hard to assess. Experts here in South Korea say it's highly probable that there are infections in the North."

"We have intelligence that a citizen in Pyeongyang who's visited China has been infected. And I've heard that there was an order in the North to burn all the dead bodies, so we can't rule out the possibility of deaths from the virus."

Cho points out that the virus could have been spread within the regime by North Korean laborers who returned home from China last December, after the virus broke out.
The North started isolating travelers in January.
Smuggling or civic exchanges between North Koreans and Chinese are possible factors as well.

Pundits also point to weak public health infrastructure in the North a lack of test kits and medicine.
Ordinary North Koreans may not be aware they are infected, confusing symptoms of the coronavirus with other respiratory diseases common in the North.

The COVID-19 epidemic creates a dilemma for Kim Jong-un.
Pyeongyang's trade with Beijing the main source of income for the regime under the international sanctions framework is directly hit.
Kim Jong-un has stated at the start of the new year that his regime will confront the international sanctions and achieve self-supported economic development.

"For the North to achieve its so-called 'self-reliance,' it should mobilize as many people as possible, but at the moment, that's difficult because the virus needs to be controlled. Plus, the North also has to close its border with China at a time when it badly needs economic assistance."

Pyeongyang, through its Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Friday, emphasized that it's clean from the virus in contrast to South Korea.
Watchers say it's part of propaganda efforts.
The news that there are infections in North Korea could greatly hurt public sentiment and leave a mark against Kim Jong-un's leadership.
Oh Jung-hee, Arirang News.
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