2020 coronavirus pandemic in North Korea

There are no officially confirmed cases of COVID-19 in North Korea, although South Korean sources say that the disease is steadily affecting the country. The virus is more likely to have come into North Korea from China, where the virus originates, than from South Korea. The Chinese-North Korean border restrictions are more relaxed than the heavily militarized border between North and South Korea. However, suspected COVID-19 cases in the two Chinese provinces (Liaoning and Jilin) bordering North Korea have been low.[1]

2020 coronavirus pandemic in North Korea
Virus strainSARS-CoV-2
LocationNorth Korea
First outbreakWuhan, Hubei, China
Arrival dateNo information


North Korea is an impoverished country with weak healthcare infrastructure and is subject to sanctions, making it vulnerable in the event of an outbreak.[2][3] There is concern that widespread malnutrition could worsen the spread of COVID-19.[1] North Korean public health official Pak Myong Su said that if the disease spread in North Korea, "a serious disaster could not be avoided".[4]

Diplomatically and economically isolated,[1] the country borders China, the starting point of the pandemic, which is North Korea's closest ally, most important trading partner, and a source of tourists.[3][5]

North Korea's government is secretive and the media are tightly controlled, making it hard for outside observers to determine what is really going on in the country.[1]

Historically, North Korea has cut off travel in the face of epidemics abroad, for instance during the 2014 Ebola epidemic.[3] Moreover, the country has had success in disease eradication in the past; it reportedly eliminated measles in 2018.[6][1] North Korea's government is highly authoritarian and maintains strong control over the country, which experts anticipated could help in enforcing disease control measures such as social distancing.[1][7]


Masikryong Ski Resort, a popular ski resort in North Korea. Due to the outbreak of the virus, ski resorts and spas in North Korea have been closed.

North Korea was one of the first countries to close borders due to COVID-19.[8] The government has implemented widespread travel restrictions,[9] including closing the border to foreign tourists in late January[3] and then suspending flights and banning travel in and out of the country.[8] Though many parts of the border were closed, the bridge between Dandong and Sinuiju remained open and allowed supplies to be delivered.[10] In late February, the North Korean government said that it would keep the border closed until a cure was found.[11]

The possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak in North Korea is a concern to international organizations and observers due to the country's poverty and low-quality healthcare infrastructure. Outside organizations have provided aid to help the country fight the virus: the Russian government provided test kits,[10] the World Health Organization announced plans to send supplies despite the lack of confirmed cases, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, U.S. State Department, and South Korean government all indicated willingness to help.[1] The U.S. government worked with the United Nations to make exceptions to sanctions, though they were also criticized for slowing down the process for providing aid.[9] Doctors Without Borders said in late March that supplies of diagnostic equipment and personal protective equipment were stranded on the Chinese border.[12]

In early February, the North Korean government took severe measures to block the spread of the coronavirus. Rodong Sinmun, the Workers' Party of Korea newspaper, reported that the customs officials at Nampho port were performing disinfection activities, including placing imported goods in quarantine.[13] All international flights and railway services were suspended in early February, and connections by sea and road were largely closed over the following weeks.[14]

In February, wearing face masks was obligatory and visiting public places like restaurants was forbidden. Ski resorts and spas were closed, and military parades, marathons, and other public events were cancelled.[15]

Schools were closed throughout the country; university students in Pyongyang from elsewhere in the country were confined to their dormitories.[16][17]

North Korean citizens returning from other countries faced a 40-day isolation period to which was added a 30-day “medical observation” period. According to North Korean media, nearly 7000 North Koreans were held under these rules at 1 March.[18]

According to the North Korean government, 10,000 people had been quarantined by the end of March.[5] From 12 February, the 14-day quarantine on all foreigners (including their local staff) was extended to 30 days.[11] Diplomats and other foreigners were evacuated to Vladivostok in March.[9][10] By 27 March, according to North Korean media, there were only two foreigners in quarantine and 2280 North Koreans were under "medical observation" in areas such as South Phyongan province and North Phyongan province, Ryanggang province, and the city of Rason.[19]

The North Korean military fired five missiles on two occasions in early March 2020, which may be "an effort to ensure the country remains on the agenda for other nations amid the virus outbreak".[1] More missile tests followed in late March, along with an announcement that the Supreme People's Assembly would meet in early April. Foreign observers said the government was trying to show confidence in their handling of the virus.[20] The South Korean military called the provocation "extremely inappropriate" in light of the pandemic.[21]

On 18 March 2020, North Korea leader Kim Jong-un ordered the construction of new hospitals.

Kim Jong-un sent a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in as a show of support amidst the outbreak in South Korea.[22] United States President Donald Trump wrote a letter to Kim Jong-un to express his willingness to work with him on dealing with COVID-19.[23]

North Korean state media has reported on the severity of the outbreak in other countries.[5]


Although South Korean media shared news hinting at the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic to North Korea, the WHO denied the veracity of such claims. On 18 February, Rodong Sinmun quoted a public health official reiterating the country had had "no confirmed case of the new coronavirus so far". The WHO prioritised aid for North Korea, including the shipment of protective equipment and supplies.[24]

In early March, the North Korean government continued to deny that they had any cases of COVID-19. However, according to South Korean media outlet Daily NK, 180 soldiers had died. There was no estimate of those merely infected.[25]

In February and March, U.S. officials observed a decrease in military activity in North Korea, believed to be a sign that there are COVID-19 cases in the country.[1] General Robert B. Abrams observed that the North Korean military had "been on lockdown for about 30 days" and "didn’t fly an airplane for 24 days".[1]

The underground network that assists defectors in escaping North Korea has been almost unable to operate amidst strict controls implemented to stop the virus, with defection attempts being suspended.[26] Defection rates had been declining already, probably due to increased security under the administrations of Kim Jong-un in North Korea and Xi Jinping in China.[26]


January 2020

From 23 January, North Korea banned foreign tourists.[27]

On 23 January, suspected cases in Sinuiju were quarantined.[needs update][28]

On 30 January, North Korea's news agency KCNA declared a "state emergency" and reported the establishment of anti-epidemic headquarters around the country.[29]

February 2020

On 2 February, KCNA reported that all the people who had entered the country after 13 January were placed under "medical supervision."[29]

On 7 February, South Korean media outlet Daily NK claimed that five North Koreans in Sinuiju on the Chinese border died.[30] Within the same day, The Korea Times reported that a North Korean female living in the capital Pyongyang was infected.[31] Despite no confirmation by North Korean authorities on the claims, the country has implemented stricter measures to combat the spread of the virus.[32][33]

Schools were closed starting on 20 February.[17]

On 29 February, Kim Jong-un called for stronger measures to be taken to prevent COVID-19 from spreading to North Korea.[34]

March 2020

On 14 March 2020, North Korea state media reported there were no confirmed cases in its territory.[35]

On 18 March 2020, Kim Jong-un ordered the construction of new hospitals in North Korea. North Korean state media also reported that groundbreaking on a new hospital was underway the day prior on Tuesday 17 March. Kim Jong-un reportedly told a newspaper linked to the ruling Workers' Party of Korea that the construction of new hospitals were being done for general improvement of the nation's healthcare system without mentioning COVID-19.[36]

On 20 March 2020, North Korean media said that more than 2,590 people had been released from quarantine in North Pyongan and South Pyongan provinces. All but three quarantined foreigners had been released.[37]

April 2020

On 1 April 2020, North Korean public health official Pak Myong Su repeated the claim that North Korea has no cases of the virus.[4]

See also


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