North Korea published this photo of disease control officials in protective suits on May 13. (Rodong Sinmun)

North Korea’s quarantine “control tower,” the State Emergency Anti-epidemic Command, has been unable to aggregate each and every death from COVID-19. Local officials are not properly reporting their numbers to Pyongyang for fear of being blamed for deaths, rendering the central government unable to calculate an accurate death toll.

Confusion over reporting instructions

A Daily NK source in Pyongyang said Monday that the government has issued orders on COVID-19 reporting three times, with the orders changing each time.

When North Korea first officially revealed a local outbreak of COVID-19 on May 12, officials reported suspected cases, fever cases, quarantine patients, fully recovered patients and deaths on a daily basis. In early June, the government ordered that provinces — and provinces alone — produce death statistics, and that officials should report weekly or monthly death statistics if the central government asked for them. Recently, however, the central government has once again asked officials to produce daily reports.

The source said while reports continued on suspected cases, fever cases and quarantine patients, the government changed its instructions on reporting deaths before reverting back to the original order.

“The first order and third order called for a daily report system for normal statistics, while the second order was issued due to concern that with the disease essentially as bad as a cold, the public will to engage in quarantine efforts could weaken if the death numbers became known,” said the source.

According to the source, the second order in early June was approved after party, state, legal, public safety and security quarantine commanders under the State Emergency Anti-epidemic Command submitted their opinions on joint measures.

Concern over blame leads to false reports

The problem is that North Korean quarantine authorities cannot get an accurate read of the COVID-19 situation because officials are minimizing the death count. According to the source, the reality is that not even North Korean leader Kim Jong Un knows what the actual death count is.

“Local emergency anti-epidemic commands are burying their heads in the sand when they report their death totals, and even the State Emergency Anti-epidemic Command is not passing on the numbers properly. They are reducing or eliminating the death numbers,” said the source. “People are low-balling their reports since they say plenary meetings will censure or punish apparent irresponsibility on the part of local officials in their quarantine responses.”

This is to say, because officials worry that they will shoulder responsibility and face punishment for an “insufficient response” to COVID-19 if they report the death tolls as they really are, they are low-balling or covering up the numbers.

The source said since even the State Emergency Anti-epidemic Command is sending false reports, “they can’t scold the regional branches.”

“It would make sense that Kim Jong Un is receiving fake reports,” he added.

Faking the causes of death

Local quarantine officials are reporting attributing COVID deaths to other diseases in their reports up the chain of command.

The source said a small comment for “remarks” has appeared in the statistics report form officials use to tally provincial, city and county deaths.

“Officials are supposed to write the cause of death there,” he said. “But few local commands report the cause of death as COVID in the case of patients with underlying conditions, elderly patients and children.”

Another source in North Hwanghae Province said officials report that there “are few or almost no people dying of COVID-19 in Sariwon.”

“This is because, generally, when people die, officials process them as deaths from another disorder or some ordinary illness,” he added.

The source went on to say that only patients under the age of 55 who die after suffering symptoms such as fever are classified as “suspected COVID deaths” in the statistics. He said over the last month, there have been about 210 deaths in Sariwon, “all of which were reported as deaths from ordinary illnesses or suspected COVID deaths.”

Basically, when people without previous disorders die after displaying suspected COVID-19 symptoms, they are classified not as “COVID deaths,” but as “suspected COVID deaths.”

While this might reflect the reality of statistical reporting on COVID deaths in North Korea, regional and lower-level quarantine officials are nevertheless running around every day to report general statistics regarding the COVID-19 situation.

“City, county, district, neighborhood, village, factory, workplace and organization quarantine officials have to report [their statistics] every day by 5 PM,” said the source. “Quarantine officials below the city and county level are running around by car, motorcycle, bicycle or even on foot to get the stats for their jurisdictions.”

Translated by David Black. Edited by Robert Lauler.

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.