pyongyang scientists street kim jong suk
The Mirae Scientists Street in Pyongyang (Ryugong website)

North Korean authorities have established two make-shift isolation facilities in Pyongyang for people infected with COVID-19, Daily NK has learned. 

A source in Pyongyang told Daily NK on Monday that for the last two years, Pyongyang was the only city in North Korea without a state-run isolation facility. Now, however, two make-shift quarantine facilities have been created in the city’s Rangrang and Unjong districts.

Of particular note is the fact that the authorities placed the quarantine facilities in the southern and northern parts of the city.

According to the source, North Korea ordered that the facilities be completed within 48 hours of the country’s first official announcement of a COVID-19 outbreak. The authorities used prefabricated structures to quickly complete the facilities.

The source said there is an existing facility for Pyongyang’s quarantine patients in Anju, South Pyongan Province. Confirmed cases from the latest outbreak, however, are being taken to the new facilities in the capital rather than Anju.

According to him, the current virus strain is considered less fatal, so only sick people with clear diagnoses are being sent to the facilities, as was the case early on in the pandemic. The family members of the infected have been put into home isolation, with warning signs stuck on their doors.

With the death rate from the Omicron variant low and capacity at the temporary facilities limited, the authorities are separating and quarantining confirmed cases only.

According to numbers released by North Korea, about 1,213,550 people have come down with fever nationwide since late April as of 6 PM Sunday. About 648,630 of them have fully recovered, while 564,860 are undergoing treatment.

Kim Jong Un calls the outbreak a “mountain we must cross” and warns against “carelessness, regardless of the low fatality rate”

Daily NK’s Pyongyang-based source said that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has stressed that the nation must use the opportunity to overcome the COVID-19 crisis.

According to the source, Kim said that the situation is a “mountain we must once cross” and that North Korea “cannot simply [rely] on lockdowns all the time.” The North Korean leader further called for “unified, intensive, and strong” efforts to eradicate the disease.

The source added that Kim ordered measures “matching the reality of North Korea’s public health environment,” warning against complacency just because COVID-19’s fatality rate is lower than when the country shut its borders over two years ago.

Rodong Sinmun and other North Korean state-run media reported on Monday that Kim issued a special order to stabilize the supply of COVID-19 medicine with the help of the military, noting problems in distribution.

Confusion over the government’s outbreak announcement, along with hope for international support

Many North Koreans appear a bit confused over the sudden public announcement by the authorities regarding the COVID-19 outbreak.

Daily NK’s source in Pyongyang said that people put into home quarantine or state-run isolation facilities over the last two years had the same symptoms the government is talking about now, yet the authorities never called people with those symptoms “COVID patients.” As a result, rumors are now circulating that the virus has been in North Korea for a long period of time. 

For a while now, many North Koreans have been displaying symptoms of COVID-19, with some even dying from them. However, North Korea had continued to promote itself as free of COVID-19, chalking the cases up as simple fever or other infectious diseases.

The source said many North Koreans believe it “fortunate that the international community has developed treatments and vaccines” while North Korea was closed off for over two years. He said they hope North Korea will receive multilateral support from the world.

North Korean medical professionals now say they can issue proper diagnoses since their government has officially acknowledged the outbreak, he added. 

“While many people came down with symptoms similar to COVID-19 after the closure of the border, healthcare workers could not call the disease by its name in the absence of guidance from the Ministry of Public Health,” the source continued. “Now, however, the ministry has told doctors to call it COVID-19, and hospitals are holding meetings [to discuss responses].”

He further reported that the healthcare system’s leadership has moved to a 24-hour discussion, reporting and command system, with people rotating between three to four shifts a day. 

“The authorities are busy crafting measures [to deal with the situation] because the outbreak occurred during a period in which people are being mobilized to support agricultural areas,” he added. 

Lockdowns during height of farming season cause headaches

North Korea has long carried out general mobilizations of its people in May to plant rice. This year, the authorities have been accelerating public mobilizations because the government is pushing for increased agricultural production. However, these mobilizations have faced difficulties with the imposition of regional lockdowns due to the unexpected announcement of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The source said officials should be mobilizing people to plant rice, plant summer vegetables and water the wheat and barley fields by early June. Since people are banned from crossing regional lines, however, officials must mobilize labor from within their own cities, counties, districts and villages instead.

The restrictions placed on agricultural mobilizations due to the sudden lockdown announcement is sparking concern about labor shortages during the farming season.

“Provincial branches of the Central Emergency Anti-epidemic Headquarters are focused on organizing support for agricultural areas, and are working hard to avoid missing the optimal time to mobilize farm labor, but it won’t be easy,” the source said.

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.