North Korean residents are terrified about the rapid spread of Wuhan pneumonia caused by the coronavirus, but despite those fears, trade with China is continuing as normal.
Named after the city in central China where the outbreak first occurred, Wuhan pneumonia has spread all over China and beyond, with confirmed cases in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and the United States.
The residents fear that if the virus were to cross the Yalu, North Korea would be ill-equipped to contain the spread because of a poor quarantine system.
A resident from North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service Wednesday that news of Wuhan pneumonia outbreaks is the hottest topic these days.
“There’s this untreatable new pneumonia in China that is quickly killing so many people,” the source said.
“We all know that once you get this new-type pneumonia, there is no cure and it leads to death, so we are nervously afraid.”
The source said that news of the virus isn’t coming from media sources, Rather, trade workers and smugglers who live in the area near the Chinese border and make frequent trips to China are bringing back tales of the disease.
“They say that if you get a cough and a high fever, it’s deadly, because there is no proper cure for the disease. People are really worried,” the source said.
“Some of the residents who are aware of the disease are rushing to the local markets to buy antibiotics and medicines while they still can,” the source added.
The source said that residents are especially worried because China’s medical infrastructure is superior to North Korea’s.
“If it can’t be treated in China, it will be completely incurable for us. We are helpless every single time a virus breaks out in China. It always spreads to North Korea,” the source said.
The source recalled how North Korea handled the SARS (2002-2003) and MERS (2012-2015) outbreaks.
“When SARS and MERS were spreading, quarantine authorities isolated residents who lived close to the border or visited China. [They were held] as a group for months, suffering greatly,” said the source.
Even with residents’ widespread fears, trade between China and North Korea has shown no signs of slowing down. Sources in the Sinuiju Customs office in North Pyongan province report large quantities of food and building materials are entering North Korea from Dandong, just across the Sino-Korean border.
“Trade is completely normal,” a trade source in China told RFA Wednesday.
“In fact, it’s increasing as the Lunar New Year holiday approaches,” the second source said.
The second source said that authorities are in fact taking some precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.
“[Because authorities are] concerned about the spread of pneumonia, warehouses are urgently being inspected with shipping documents,” said the second source.
“These days, trade deals between North Korea and China are mostly construction materials and tobacco, but since yesterday a large amount of food, including fruit, condiments, and beef are being sold because of the Lunar New Year,” the second source added.
The source said that both the Dandong and Sinuiju customs offices are aware of the potential risks and have devised contingency plans.
“[They] are going to operate normally until the day before the Lunar New Year [Jan. 24], regardless of Wuhan pneumonia, but both offices announced that they will be closed from the 25th to the 27th for the holiday, before reopening on the 28th,” the second source said.
“The international train to Pyongyang was suspended because it is mostly used by Chinese tourists, and trade workers can take a small bus [from Dandong] to the Sinuiju Customs office and then get health and customs inspections there,” the second source added.
A trade official in North Pyongan Province told RFA Thursday that “In the event that the virus continues to spread through China and neighboring countries after the Lunar New Year holiday, [North Korea and China] have agreed to shut down their customs offices in Sinuiju and Dandong and suspend trade.”
WHO ready to act
But should the virus make its way into North Korea, the World Health Organization (WHO) told RFA that it is ready to step in immediately.
“For all member states and all countries, the provisions are the same, [as well as] the recommendations on how to deal with the virus,” said WHO Spokesperson Christian Lindmeier from the Geneva headquarters over the phone Thursday.
“If the member states reach out to [the] WHO to ask [for] support, we are already ready to support [them]. That goes [for] all member states in the same way,” he said.
Lindmeier also said he was not aware of any coronavirus infections in North Korea as of the time of interview.
During the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003, North Korea was able to take swift action to prevent the disease from crossing over into its territory. It shut down flights between Pyongyang and Beijing and sealed off the Sino-Korean border.
During the MERS outbreak in 2015, which affected South Korea substantially, Pyongyang was able to prevent the spread of MERS by South Korean visitors to the then-active inter-Korean industrial complex in Kaesong by borrowing health screening equipment from Seoul. It also promoted preventative measures through the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper.
Reported by Jieun Kim, Hyemin Son and Soyoung Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.