The lockdown in Manpo, Chagang Province, which was implemented amid fears COVID-19 had entered the city, was lifted this past Saturday, but over 100 people in the city have died of symptoms similar to those caused by COVID-19, Daily NK has learned. 

“During the lockdown, people couldn’t go to work and had to stay at home, but with the lifting of the lockdown, people can go to work,” a source in the province told Daily NK yesterday on condition of anonymity.

Quoting a source, Daily NK had previously reported (in Korean) that a lockdown order had been issued for Manpo on Oct. 26 when about 10 residents died after exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. When it was learned that all those who died had come into contact with goods smuggled into the country, North Korean authorities carried out “emergency” disinfection efforts while quickly isolating potential carriers of the virus. 

According to the source in Chagang Province, the North Korean authorities burned all smuggled items deemed to be carriers of the virus after putting Manpo on lockdown. Some important items are being kept on a loading point at the city’s customs house, where they are disinfected daily, the source added. 

The source also told Daily NK that about 10 customs officials and merchants from Manpo are being interrogated at a Ministry of State Security lockup after allegedly causing the outbreak. They are accused of releasing the imported items in violation of quarantine rules, which call for items entering the country to be isolated for a set period of time.

Speculation is reportedly emerging that they are being charged with subversion and murder, and could face anywhere from seven years of forced labor to spending their entire lives in a forced labor camp. The source told Daily NK that one or two of the ringleaders could be publicly executed.

chagang food shortages signs
A train can be seen travelling in an area of Chagang Province near the Sino-North Korean border. / Image: Daily NK

According to figures reported to the province’s emergency quarantine committee, 107 people died in Manpo during the lockdown after exhibiting symptoms similar to those caused by COVID-19, while another roughly 320 were designated as “suspected cases” and transported to a state-designated isolation facility.

The source added that, besides those cases, individuals requiring follow-up tests are currently isolating themselves at home. Officials from the city’s Ministry of State Security are placing signs reading “Quarantined” on their doors. The inhabitants are being watched around the clock and the authorities are ensuring other locals stay away from them.

Despite this situation, North Korean authorities have lifted the lockdown for now, believing it urgent that residents return to their daily lives.

“In Manpo, people have to burn wood or coal [for heat] until early May, but with people banned from moving around during the most important time to gather fuel for burning, they have been unable to prepare for winter, while over half of the households were unable to make kimchi during the kimchi-making season,” said the source. “The lockdown was lifted because people could no longer live if the situation continued.”

In fact, the North Korean authorities provided 10 days of food – 300 grams of food a day per person – to residents of Manpo after ordering the lockdown. This was apparently woefully insufficient given the three-week duration of the lockdown. About 10 children suffering from malnutrition at nurseries and orphanages in Mapo reportedly died from lack of food during the lockdown as well. 

“Some people are saying there must be more households or individuals who died from starvation during the lockdown,. They are also saying that they can no longer believe what the state or the cadres in charge of the quarantine tell them because quarantines are supposed to stop infectious diseases from entering, but many people are dying now,” said the source. “Some people are also expressing disillusionment with the lockdown, saying it would be better to head into the mountains, build a mud hut and live on grasses and berries.”

North Korean authorities are still blocking all roads heading in and out of Manpo, according to the source. This means while people can now move around inside Manpo, the authorities are still controlling who passes through the city limits.

“The provincial and municipal party organizations ordered that the ban on entry in and out of the city be lifted 20 days from Nov. 14, when the lockdown was lifted,” said the source. “The markets are empty since only supplies needed in the munitions factories are entering the city, not rice or other items people need to survive.”

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

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Ha Yoon Ah is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.