Despite the "thaw" in relations with the US over the past few year (a thaw that former Trump chief of staff John Kelly recently claimed was simply an example Kim Jong Un "playing" the US), the flow of information out of the Hermit Kingdom is often pretty unreliable and inconsistent.
Which is why rumors about cases of likely infection in the country have been met with guarded credulity.Did North Korea execute an infected patient who left a quarantine to visit a public bath? Sounds possible. And Kim Jong Un reportedly sealed the border with China, as we noted earlier. Kim has at times reportedly disobeyed his puppetmasters in Beijing before; but would he really go so far as to seal the border without China's explicit permission?
It's certainly possible. And after speaking to several experts, Fox News determined that, in all probability, COVID-19 has likely already crossed the Yalu River and is likely spreading in North Korea.
The story comes one day after the State Department said it was 'deeply worried' about "the vulnerability of the North Korean people."
A former director of Korean studies at a prominent foreign policy think-tank said the North is probably concealing evidence of an outbreak because "they don't want to show any weakness" at a time when their fraught negotiations with the US are slowly unraveling.
"There is no way that North Korea is not being impacted by the coronavirus - they are clearly lying as they don’t want to show any weakness or that there is any threat to the regime," Harry Kazianis, director of Korean Studies at the Center for National Interest, told Fox News. "Considering how there are many porous sections of the North Korea-China border - and how the Kim regime depends on illegal trade to survive - it is clear the virus has come to North Korea."
NK Health Ministry official Song In Bom told state media last week that while no cases of the virus have been identified in the country, the regime is prepared in case they are faced with an outbreak.
COVID-19 has infected more than 60,000 people across more than 26 countries and territories since it was discovered in China’s Hubei Province late last year. Yet somehow, North Korea, which shares a border with China, has remained infection-free, despite heavy cross-border trade with China, even as every other country in the region has reported infections?
The only major country in East Asia that hasn't reported infections is Indonesia. And even Indonesia has been questioned by skeptical health officials about the possibility that it could be accidentally ignoring - or worse, suppressing - signs of an outbreak. However, health officials insisted that Indonesia has remained virus-free despite the huge number of Chinese visitors who traveled to the country after the outbreak began but before travel restrictions were put in place.
None of these countries depends on China to the extent that NK does (more than 90% of its foreign trade is with - you guessed it - China).
Yesterday, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School told the SCMP that North Korea's "antiquated health-care system", along with international sanctions targeting its nuclear program, would make it difficult for North Korea to suppress an outbreak.
"Perhaps they can manage to detect and treat small numbers, but an outbreak could likely easily overload the health system," Park said.
"Critical medical supplies are hard to import and vital equipment is unable to be repaired due to the difficulty in procuring parts."
The country would need international assistance to prevent the virus from ravaging its entire population. The country would need swift infusions of antivirals, facemasks and other medical supplies. And unfortunately, it's go-to benefactor, China, is a little tied up with its own problems at the moment.
"North Korea’s health care system is devoid of the most basic treatments for any sort of medical problem," he said. "Things like antibiotics, any sort of preventative care are unheard of in the countryside or rural areas and only reserved for the party elite in Pyongyang."
If the North is currently suffering from an outbreak, we suspect it won't be able to hide it for much longer. And given the country's impoverished state, seeing the virus spread to between 60% and 80% of the North's population isn't out of the question. What if Kim Jong Un becomes the first head of state to be infected by COVID-19 and must be airlifted to a South Korean, or worse, an American hospital for treatment?
What kind of impact do you think that would have on future US-NK relations?