Deaths continue a month after North Korea declared ‘victory’ over COVID

Cases are unofficially confirmed using self-test kits, but patients are starving during long quarantines at home.
By Hyemin Son for RFA Korean
Deaths continue a month after North Korea declared ‘victory’ over COVID Staff members disinfect a Pyongyang hotel in this image released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 2, 2022 - about a month and a half before Kim Jong Un declared an end to “maximum emergency” COVID-19 restrictions.

UPDATED at 12:26 p.m. EDT on 09-29-2022

North Koreans are continuing to test positive for COVID-19 and several have died of starvation during lengthy quarantines more than one month after Pyongyang “declared victory” over the virus, sources in the country told RFA. 

On Aug. 10, the country’s leader Kim Jong Un ended “maximum emergency” restrictions that had been in place since May, saying the country had won its battle against COVID.

But the disease is spreading and North Koreans are still dying from it, a resident in the northern province of Ryanggang told RFA’s Korean Service Monday on condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

“As the weather gets cooler in the fall, the number of farmers confirmed with COVID-19 is increasing in Kimhyongjik county, which faces the border with China,” the source said.

“Last week, a couple in their 60s living in Muchang village died while quarantining at home, only ten days after being confirmed to be infected with COVID-19,” he said.

During the emergency, North Korea had been keeping a tally of “fever cases.” The total reached around 4.7 million people, and state media reported 74 related deaths. These figures were never confirmed to be COVID-19 related, likely because of a lack of testing capabilities.

But the source said that health authorities are now using Chinese self-test kits to unofficially confirm infection. 

Doctors visit the households of sick people once a day to take their temperature. After three days with a fever, they report it to the county’s quarantine commander, who will come to administer a test.

If they test positive, they must quarantine at home for 20 days. 

But even though authorities are now testing for the disease, they still try to cover up deaths, according to the source.

“The quarantine authorities carried the bodies away by ambulance without informing their son who lives in the same neighborhood,” he said. “They buried the bodies in a mountain away from the neighborhood. Their son is angry because he is unable to even hold a funeral for his parents.”

During the emergency, suspected COVID-19 patients were sent to a group quarantine facility, where they were monitored. After the emergency officially ended, patients were required to quarantine at home.

“COVID-19 patients and their families who quarantine at home only receive two tablets of fever-reducer each day, and no food is provided for them,” the source said.  “Residents are blaming the authorities for not taking care of the patients by blindly isolating them. They argue that COVID-19 patients are dying because they do not eat properly.”

A 72-year-old woman in nearby Kimjongsuk county’s Songjon village died during quarantine in her home one week after testing positive for COVID-19, a resident there told RFA.

“The quarantine authorities only supplied two fever-reducer tablets to the patient each day during the quarantine period. They also gave two tablets to her daughter in her 40s, her son-in-law, grandson and granddaughter, all who lived with her,” the second source said.

“They were all quarantined at home as suspected cases, and they were not given food at all,” she said. “Families who are quarantined at home are not able to work, nor can they go out to buy food at the marketplace. This family not only had to worry about dying from COVID-19, they also had to try not to starve to death, by eating corn and potatoes from their garden.” 

Though the family attempted to hold a funeral for her, authorities quickly seized the body, put it on an ambulance and sped away, according to the second source. They buried the body in the mountains away from where people live, and only told the family the location of the burial site.

“They said they were not allowed to hold a funeral for COVID-19 dead,” she said. “Residents are dying from symptoms of COVID-19 because there are no measures to supply food and medicine to COVID-19 patients. Residents are resentful that the authorities falsely advertise that we are a COVID-free country.”

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

CORRECTION: Updates state media's published official fever case total and death total. 


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.