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North Korea Says It Has No Coronavirus Cases. North Korea Experts Are Still Wary


Most of China's neighbors have reported cases of infection with the new coronavirus. There is one notable exception - North Korea. It says it has no cases. But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, experts are worried just the same.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The advantages and might of our state, said a state media op-ed this month, will be fully demonstrated to the whole world when we ensure that the virus does not reach our country. Dr. John Linton, head of the International Health Care Center at Severance Hospital in Seoul, says the North Korean state system does make some things easier.

JOHN LINTON: So there are advantages in very strict or - totalitarianism in health care. That is something that makes it easy for doctors to organize.

KUHN: North Korea says it has mobilized quickly. It's closed its border with China. It's increased its quarantine period from 15 to 30 days.

LINTON: The problem with North Korea is they do not have supplies and they do not have equipment.

KUHN: Some hospitals, he says, don't even have running water. Improvisation is everywhere.

LINTON: Disposable gloves being used twice, beer bottles functioning as IV containers.

KUHN: Linton has visited many hospitals in the North. He says despite the lack of just about everything, the doctors there are quite competent.

LINTON: We built operating rooms for North Korea for some time. And if you build an operating room and you put the equipment in the hands of the North Korean doctors, they do very well.

KUHN: Despite the government's claims that it has no cases, Linton says North Koreans have reached out to him through back channels.

LINTON: Through private sources, they're asking for disposable gowns, gloves and hazmat suits, which are undoubtedly lacking. So something is going on. Otherwise, they wouldn't be asking for this.

KUHN: Linton wants to deliver the supplies, but sanctions get in the way. He believes those sanctions should be waived. He warns that if a pandemic spreads into North Korea...

LINTON: It's not just their health issue, it's our health issue.

KUHN: Choi Jung-hoon (ph) is also skeptical of Pyongyang's claims. He was a neurologist in North Korea until he defected to the South in 2012. Beginning in 2006, he worked to contain an outbreak of scarlet fever. His job was to look for infected passengers aboard trains.

CHOI JUNG-HOON: (Through interpreter) On the train, there were all kinds of people, North Koreans of every class who needed to get somewhere - male, female, young or old - everyone.

KUHN: Choi roamed the aisles looking for riders with rashes or signs of fever.

CHOI: (Through interpreter) During the four months that I was on the trains, I think I found over 500 suspected patients.

KUHN: The only problem was that it wasn't scarlet fever at all. It was measles. Never mind containing outbreaks, Choi says, the country has trouble even identifying them. He also questions North Korea's claims to have sealed its porous border with China.

CHOI: (Through interpreter) Past epidemics that originated in China have always spread to North Korea and vice versa.

KUHN: Choi says that he risked becoming infected himself. But he had little choice. And besides, infection was hardly the only risk.

CHOI: (Through interpreter) After work, we doctors would sit around and drink and talk about the day. We would get drunk. But even then, we were careful not to comment on our political system.

KUHN: Lest he wind up in a labor camp. In other words, criticizing North Korea's handling of an epidemic can be more hazardous to your health than the disease itself.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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