North Korean hospital mum on cause of death for 10 ‘suspected’ COVID-19 patients

Citizens say that the government is lying to them about how many people have died from the coronavirus.
North Korean hospital mum on cause of death for 10 ‘suspected’ COVID-19 patients In this April 1, 2020, file photo, a nurse explains details about the COVID-19 and ways to prevent contracting the new virus at the Phyongchon District People's Hospital in Pyongyang, North Korea.

A hospital in North Korea sent 10 people with COVID-19 symptoms to an unheated ward in freezing temperatures, and then falsified the causes of their deaths to maintain Pyongyang’s claim that the country is completely virus free, sources in the country told RFA.

The 10 patients were admitted to a section of the hospital that is normally used to treat tuberculosis, a resident of Chongjin in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong, where the hospital is located, told RFA’s Korean Service.

“The hospital said they died from malnutrition, but these were people who complained of fever and were diagnosed with pneumonia caused by the flu,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

“They were left in a part of the ward with no heating, despite the cold weather. They all died soon after,” the source said.

Since the start of the pandemic in January 2020, North Korea has taken extensive measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which causes COVID. The government locked down entire cities and counties, banned travel between provinces, and shutdown the Sino-Korean border, which included a suspension of trade with China. The trade ban was partially lifted earlier this month, only to be reinstated again after a new outbreak in the Chinese border city of Dandong.

Pyongyang declared these “preventative measures” successful in April 2020, when Pak Myong Su, the director of the anti-epidemic department of North Korea’s Central Emergency Anti-Epidemic Headquarters, gave a rare interview with foreign media to proclaim that “not a single person was infected” with the virus in the country.

Observers immediately doubted the claim, citing North Koreas’ crumbling medical infrastructure, the relative ease by which people could cross the Sino-Korean border, and the willingness of the regime to hide the truth.

Additionally, RFA reported in April 2020 that the government warned the public that COVID was spreading in three areas of the country, including the capital Pyongyang.

The following March, RFA reported that the North Korean government has been keeping track of “suspected cases” of coronavirus infections but never confirms anyone showing symptoms as having COVID. Sources said that when a person suspected of having the disease dies, the body is hastily cremated to prevent a posthumous confirmation.

Similar tactics were at play for the 10 “tuberculosis patients” in Chongjin, the resident told RFA.

“The hospital informed the patients’ families only and they immediately buried the bodies at a nearby hill without explaining the exact cause of death. The families are angry, saying they should at least be told what the symptoms were and get a clear answer on why they died.”

The government has continued to keep people in the dark about the truth of the coronavirus situation in the country, a resident of Mundok county, South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA.

“No one has died from the coronavirus in North Korea because the public will never know about it. Hospitals announce those deaths are due to tuberculosis [TB] or flu,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

Authorities are leaving domestic coronavirus cases out of the news cycle and falsely claiming coronavirus deaths as TB cases, said the second source.

“If you look closely, tuberculosis doesn’t destroy the lungs like the coronavirus does. But most people don’t know that so when someone dies from coronavirus and they say it’s tuberculosis, who is going to know?” said the source.

“No one knows … other than the doctor who was in charge and the central government officials,” the source said, adding that in his neighborhood there were three recent deaths chalked up to TB. 

With the weather turning colder, flu cases are on the rise and death tolls are up as well, the source said.

“But most of them are filed as deaths from malnutrition or flu, not the coronavirus,” the source said.

An internal survey conducted by the Ministry of Health in March 2021 revealed some 13,000 “suspected cases” in North Hamgyong, the most in the entire country, a source told RFA in a previous report.

According to the survey’s results, officially reported only to the ruling Korean Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, most of the suspected cases were in the cities, including the provincial capital Chongjin, North Korea’s third largest city and home to more than 600,000 people.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization said that as of Sept. 21, only about 43,000 of North Korea’s population of 25 million were tested for COVID-19, and there was not a single confirmed case.

Of those tested between Sept. 15 and 21, 109 had a flu-like illness or severe acute respiratory infection, and 582 were health care workers.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Claire Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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