Public perception of people quarantined with symptoms of COVID-19 is reportedly worsening in North Korea. The North Korean authorities’ quarantine policies, which have fostered an atmosphere of caution and fear, appears to be generating discrimination against the sick.

A Daily NK source in North Korea said Monday that people who go into quarantine with a fever, cough, or other symptoms of COVID-19 are “treated like traitors to the Korean people.”

“People are afraid of even passing in front of the house of a quarantined individual,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

Moreover, because the authorities put a “Quarantined” sign in front of the homes of quarantined individuals and control who goes in and out, society stigmatizes the quarantined and their families.

People released from state quarantine facilities — as opposed to simply home quarantine — reportedly face restrictions in their economic activity, suffering ostracization at work even after their release.

There has also been a recent string of starvation deaths involving people released from quarantine facilities.

North Koreans are reportedly saying among themselves that if you enter a quarantine facility, “it’s hard to come out alive, and even if you do, you’ll eventually die of disease or starvation.”

In fact, even North Korean authorities are stressing the need to support both people in home quarantine as well as people released from quarantine. In a written directive sent to provincial, city, and county people’s committees on June 24, the authorities called on cadres to “resolve the people’s inconveniences as if they were your own problems,” manifesting the “collective spirit” in doing so.

The directive made no direct mention of people in quarantine, but lecturers reportedly told cadres to “guarantee that quarantined individuals have side dishes, medicine, and firewood.”

covid quarantine
Disease control officials testing drivers for COVID-19 symptoms in Pyongyang’s Manggyongdae District. / Image: Rodong Sinmun

According to the source, however, cadres are passing responsibility for taking care of the quarantined, and those released from quarantine, onto the inminban (people’s units). The inminban – North Korea’s lowest administrative unit – lack the wherewithal to help their members in need, however. 

That is to say, the authorities might be stressing the need to help those in and out of quarantine, but they are providing nothing in the way of substantive help.

The source said the public has not only taken a dim view of the quarantined, but fears them as well. “Because everyone is having a tough time getting by, people would stone their inminban leaders if they called for collections of money or rice to help the quarantined.”

In a phone conversation with Daily NK, a high-ranking source in North Korea recently said fear of the coronavirus is “dividing people.”

Directives issued by the authorities regarding COVID-19 — including warnings that infection brings “mass death” and calls to “absolutely disinfect things touched by the quarantined,” and “avoid even brushing up against somebody with symptoms” — have gone beyond encouraging caution and are instead generating fear. These measures are stigmatizing the quarantined and leading to discrimination, the source claimed. 

In fact, North Korean authorities have toughened their quarantine standards to enable judicial punishments of people who fail to adhere to quarantine protocols, regarding such negligence as a “political crime.”

During the Third Enlarged Meeting of the Eighth Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea held last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said protracted emergency quarantine efforts require a prolonged spirit of “maximum vigilance” and firm adherence to regulations in state efforts to combat the pandemic.

Meanwhile, North Korean authorities continue to claim the country has had no confirmed cases of COVID-19, despite daily calls for stronger quarantine measures.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO)’s weekly report on COVID-19, North Korea reported that it conducted RT-PCR tests on 718 individuals between June 28 and July 1, but all came back negative.

North Korea also reported to the WHO that it had tested a total of 32,512 individuals for COVID-19 as of July 1, but none tested positive.

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