A new COVID-19 outbreak at two major factories in the North Korean industrial center of Chongjin has prompted authorities to close off the country’s third largest city, a drastic step not seen in Pyongyang’s initial extensive responses to the pandemic in January, sources told RFA.
While North Korea publicly claims that it has not confirmed a single case of the coronavirus within its borders, RFA reported in January that the government told people in a series of lectures that the virus had spread in three parts of the country, including North Hamgyong province. Chongjin, an industrial center with a population of 625,000, is the provincial capital.
“Since the beginning of this month, coronavirus is again spreading in and around Chongjin, causing an emergency at the provincial quarantine center,” a resident of North Hamgyong, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service Sunday.
“The provincial quarantine center and law enforcement authorities quickly imposed a ban on the movement of residents, saying it is to prevent the spread of infection,” said the source.
The new outbreak emerged last week among steel and construction workers, alarming citizens in Chongjin’s Songpyong district, according to the source.
“It’s been reported that about 10 patients with symptoms are workers at the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex and the Second Metal Construction Complex,” the source said.
“[Those complexes] are supersized facilities with tens of thousands of employees. The companies are large enough to run hospitals on their own, but they are unable to provide proper treatment other than merely isolating the patients,” the source added.
“Because several workers came down with severe pneumonia-like symptoms at the plants, the provincial committee temporarily suspended operations,” the source said.
The lockdown affects more than Chongjin and North Hamgyong. Citizens from neighboring Ryanggang province had been entering the coastal province to try to find food, as shortages at home left many hungry, according to a Ryanggang resident who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“As the food situation in Ryanggang has become difficult these days, the provincial party has been allowing people to move to other regions to get food, but now movement into North Hamgyong, especially Chongjin, is completely prohibited,” the second source said.
The second source said the Ryanggang authorities have completely stopped issuing travel passes for those wishing to go to Chongjin.
“Even when the coronavirus was in full swing, they never stopped us from trying to go to a specific city. But Chongjin is now a no-movement zone, so the situation seems to be serious now,” the second source said.
Though North Korean media often keeps citizens in one part of the country in the dark about happenings in other parts of it, news of Chongjin’s lockdown has spread to Ryanggang despite the movement ban.
“The situation in Chongjin is frequently reported through our mobile phones,” the second source said.
“Not only have we heard that residents’ movement has been restricted, news that the large factories have been shut down has also spread to Ryanggang,” the second source said.
“If they are not letting people move around and they can’t report to work at those factories, it’s going to be hard for them to make a living,” said the second source.
“The authorities are only enforcing their lockdown, ignoring the residents’ livelihood. I can only imagine how much trouble the people of Chongjin are going through.”
North Korea suffered a huge economic shock in January when the COVID-19 pandemic forced a shutdown of its border with China, its main source of food and other supplies, and the largest market for North Korean goods and labor, even under sanctions aimed at denying Pyongyang cash for its nuclear and missile programs.
RFA attempted to contact the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding the spread of COVID-19 inside North Korea, but those inquiries went unanswered as of Wednesday afternoon. The WHO’s coronavirus statistics are based on the self-reporting of each member state.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.