A photo published in state media on May 31 of North Korean officials wearing protective suits. (Rodong Sinmun-News1)

Over the last couple of days, North Korea has been claiming through its media that it has had no more suspected cases of COVID-19. Outwardly, North Korean authorities have been trying to generate an atmosphere in which they can declare a victory over COVID-19. Internally, however, it has been a completely different story, with the authorities bolstering quarantine controls on the public.

North Korean media has been announcing since July 29 that the country has not had a single new case of COVID-19. Judging from North Korean media reports alone, it would seem the country has gotten a handle over the disease, with no new cases emerging and complete recoveries on the rise.

However, North Korean authorities have yet to loosen internal restrictions on movement.

According to multiple sources in North Korea, North Korean authorities are limiting the issuance of documents needed for inter-regional travel, including travel certificates, business trip certificates, approval numbers and quarantine confirmations. North Koreans are not allowed to travel either for personal reasons such as weddings or funerals, or for business purposes outside of certain government duties.

A source in Yanggang Province said he tried to apply for a travel certificate, but the police did not accept his application, telling him not to even apply “because they wouldn’t be able to issue a certificate even if he did.” Put another way, the police officials affiliated with the Second Department of the local people’s committee, the department that issues the travel certificates, are turning away applications from the public.

Daily NK confirmed that the authorities are limiting the issuance of travel certificates in regions other than Yanggang Province. In some cases, officials are even refusing to accept applications.

A source in South Hwanghae Province said recent policy has been to refuse applications for travel certificates.

“The authorities have tended to regard the very act of applying as reactionary, accusing applicants of trying to rupture state quarantine efforts by recklessly moving about for personal business or personal reasons at a precipitous time, ignorant that with no new cases, the state’s emergency quarantine system has not loosened, but strengthened in a watertight fashion along with the daily lives of the people,” he said.

As recently as early this year, North Koreans in South Hwanghae Province could move from one city or county in the province to another with just a citizen card, provided the regions in question were not under lockdown. Recently, however, the authorities have mandated that people carry a quarantine confirmation certificate when they travel within the province from one city or country to another, according to the source.

Moreover, even if someone has the business trip certificate needed for emergency travel for official business, they may spend more than half their time in inspections because each and every checkpoint must reaffirm that they are moving toward their specified destination. Travellers must also undergo repeated decontamination procedures. 

With North Korea refusing to loosen domestic quarantine controls despite daily pronouncements that the country’s COVID-19 caseload is “zero,” some North Koreans are expressing distrust of the numbers coming from the authorities.

A source in Yanggang Province said he cannot understand how the state can announce no new COVID cases “when my entire neighborhood has the fever and so many homes are in isolation. It seems they are running two sets of numbers.”

Some North Koreans are even saying that the authorities are improperly tallying new COVID-19 cases to highlight the “tangible results” of household drug donation drives by Central Committee cadres, including North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

In fact, a source in North Hwanghae Province said cadres can keep their jobs “only if they report that the people have grown healthier with the medicine since it was directly donated by Kim Jong Un himself.”

“Everything in the nation runs according to political activities, regardless of whether people live or die,” he added.

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