Doubts grow over whether North is free of the virus

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Doubts grow over whether North is free of the virus

A representative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) cast doubt on North Korea’s claims that it has no confirmed Wuhan coronavirus cases, according to a Voice of America (VOA) report on Thursday.

Bir Mandal, the deputy representative of the UN FAO office in Pyongyang, told the VOA that UN workers in the country were skeptical about the North’s official position, though he provided no specific evidence to back up such doubts.

According to the VOA, the World Health Organization (WHO) has received no reports from North Korea’s Ministry of Public Health on coronavirus cases in the country, though the organization has provided medical equipment such as gloves, goggles and masks to the country upon its request.

A number of reports have already emerged alleging the virus has produced infections in the communist country, though Pyongyang’s state media made no mention of cases.

The JoongAng Ilbo reported on Feb. 7 that a woman living in Pyongyang who recently returned from a trip to China tested positive for the virus and has been placed under quarantine, according to a source in the country.

Radio Free Asia (RFA), another U.S. government-sponsored news outlet, also reported last week that two people were suspected to have contracted the disease in Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province, the North’s border town across the Yalu River from the Chinese city of Dandong, based on a source in China.

In late January, North Korea enforced a total shutdown of its border with China, restricting flights to Chinese cities as well. It also temporarily shut down an inter-Korean liaison office with South Korea, effectively sealing off the country from almost all outside contact.

These series of measures by Pyongyang testified to the regime’s anxiety that the new and contagious virus strain from China has the potential to wreak havoc on its fragile and inadequate health care system.

Various sources in and out of the country say the resultant cordon has produced a spike in prices for daily necessities that has exacerbated the economic conditions of average North Koreans already suffering from ongoing international sanctions on the country.

Mandal told the VOA that Pyongyang’s measures have put a damper on the activities of international organizations in the North.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it could not yet verify whether there were coronavirus cases in North Korea, but said it was closely monitoring the situation.

Seoul said last week it felt the necessity to set up a system to cooperate with the North on quarantine and disease prevention efforts, but no progress has been made due to the shutdown of the liaison office in Kaesong.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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