As the North Korean government moves to quarantine people who frequently cross the border with China and suspend an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, Amnesty International said that a potential coronavirus (nCoV) outbreak in the repressive country would disproportionately affect poorer citizens.
The NGO’s East Asia Researcher Arnold Fang, who was in Seoul to release a 2019 annual report Thursday, told RFA’s Korean Service in an exclusive interview that the poor in North Korea are at higher risk because they do not receive medical benefits.
“We have heard reports regarding the healthcare system in North Korea. They say it is free but is it really free? Because the amount of resources available is limited,” he said.
“So the worry is more about in case coronavirus hits the country. Will the poor be disproportionately affected? And will [they] not be able to access healthcare?” said Fang.
Fang also stressed that the North Korean government should not discriminate against its people according to their status as they deal with the new infectious disease.
“I think in any case, the North Korean government has a responsibility to protect the health of its citizens whether they are from the ruling elite or whether they are from workers’ families,” he said.
“I think in terms of evacuation, if North Korea is having any kind of evacuation plan at all, they should cover all citizens,” Fang said.
Trading company smuggles South Korean facial masks
But the wealthy have adequate protection, as sources told RFA Tuesday that a North Korean trading company ordered a large quantity of South Korean-made face masks to be smuggled into the North. It will likely sell them at prices most citizens will be unable to afford.
A Chinese citizen of Korean descent living in the Chinese border city of Dandong told RFA that he was involved with the deal.
“Yesterday, my North Korean business partner whom I met through border smuggling called to order 10,000 high-performance South Korean masks that can effectively block the virus,” said the source.
“He didn’t care if the price was too high, he urgently wanted good-quality South Korean masks.”
The source said the order was unusual because it came in the middle of the night.
“My partner usually makes orders during the day, but this time he called me at midnight,” the source said.
“Despite the fact that it was the Lunar New Year holiday, he was in a rush to get his order, unlike he usually is,” said the source.
The source said his smuggler partner wanted a specific kind of mask.
“It’s an antiviral mask developed by a South Korean company and approved by the [South’s] Ministry of Food and Drug Safety. He even sent pictures which detailed the mask’s various functions and requested that I purchase them,” the source said.
“It’s a disposable mask that excellently protects against micro dust, bacteria and it even purifies the air. [Right now] it is quite expensive, costing 20 Yuan (U.S. 2.88),” said the source.
The source said that masks were in very high demand in China since the outbreak.
“I explained that the KF-94 brand mask that he ordered was sold out in China so I couldn’t get it for him. But he asked me to order it directly from South Korea,” the source said.
“[Over there,] it costs what the equivalent of 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of rice would cost in North Korea.”
Meanwhile across the river border from Dandong, in Sinuiju, authorities are planning to quarantine customs officials working there, as well as truck drivers who frequently travel between China and North Korea.
International train service between Pyongyang and Beijing has also been suspended.
A trader in Dandong told RFA Wednesday that the North Korean government was taking the virus seriously.
“The international train shutdown will continue until they can decide that the coronavirus outbreak has calmed down and there will be no further spread of the virus. It’s difficult to predict when the operation will resume again,” the trader said.
“Customs officers who were working at the Sinuiju customs office from about 15 days before the Lunar New Year holiday, and truck drivers who drove between Dandong and Sinuiju will also be placed under special quarantine,” said the trader.
“They will be in quarantine for at least three weeks, because the incubation period of the virus is more than two weeks,” the trader said.
The trader added that the authorities are isolating everyone coming in from China regardless of their national origin.
“It happens to foreigners and North Koreans alike. Only after they are confirmed can they go inland, including to Pyongyang,” said the trader.
“But it seems there are no special restrictions on those who go the other way, leaving North Korea for China.”
The governments of both South and North Korea, meanwhile, decided to temporarily suspend operations at the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong to prevent an inter-Korean transmission of nCoV.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry confirmed the suspension on the Thursday, adding that the temporary closure was requested by the North Korean side.
The closure marks first time that an inter-Korean liaison office has been suspended due to an epidemic.
According to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, both sides held a meeting of liaison representatives at the office and withdrew all 58 South Koreans, including 17 officials from Kaesong.
However, the two sides have decided to open separate telephone and fax lines between Seoul and Pyongyang to maintain an active liaison connection.
The office was opened in 2018 shortly after the two Koreas’ leaders held an inter-Korean summit at the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom. They decided to establish the office in Kaesong, North Korea, the site of an inter-Korean industrial complex that closed in 2016.
Reported by Jeong Eun Lee, Jieun Kim, Joonho Kim, and Seungwook Hong for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.