Unlike South Korea, where life has been gradually returning to normal since Nov. 1 under the so-called “living with COVID” protocol, North Korea is still locked down and maintaining airtight quarantine measures. 

According to a Daily NK source in North Hamgyong Province on Wednesday, the Central Emergency Anti-Epidemic Headquarters and Ministry of Public Health issued a joint order to regions on the China-North Korean border on Oct. 28 calling for better promotion of hygiene efforts.

Local level quarantine and public health officials reportedly responded by conducting meetings with local tong (neighborhood) office officials, inminban (people’s unit) heads and temporarily appointed hygiene officials.

The source said the meetings called for even more thorough quarantine efforts because “viruses survive better in winter,” frightening attendees by likening poor quarantine efforts to “treason.” He added that the meetings said the border would “never reopen this winter” and that everyone must follow state quarantine policy.

In countries such as South Korea, the authorities are relaxing quarantine measures by permitting personal gatherings in accordance with rising vaccination rates. However, in North Korea, where people have yet to receive even their first shot, the authorities are stressing the need for even stronger controls.

There were questions regarding vaccinations at the recent meetings in North Korea, too. Indirectly hearing news of vaccinations in other countries, people in border regions are interested in the local vaccine supply and vaccination plans, according to the source.

However, the quarantine and public health officials who led the meetings criticized the efficacy of vaccines and reemphasized bolstered quarantine measures.

The officials who led the meetings said people are dying and virus variants have been appearing even in countries that invested lots of money in vaccines. Officials should not place their hopes on vaccines; the only way to survive is to shut the border, the meeting leaders claimed. They also said people were especially frightened because a single infected person could lead to mass death.

North Korea currently has strong quarantine measures in place, including mandatory mask wearing outside the home, a ban on personal gatherings except for state events, restricted travel passes and a nighttime travel ban. Accordingly, locals who fail to wear a mask, hold drinking or meal parties, or violate curfew are sent to forced labor brigades for violating quarantine rules.

Disease control officials in Pyongyang spraying buses with disinfectant. / Image: Rodong Sinmun

It is in this environment that North Korea is calling for an even tougher quarantine posture with a higher state of wariness against the entry and spread of COVID-19.

Prior to this, the official ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun ran an article entitled “Let’s Not Let Our Guard Down, Even for a Moment” on Nov. 1. The article said emergency quarantine efforts were still the “highest priority and most central task” before the nation. It called on all regions and officials in all units to continue bolstering “emergency epidemic prevention work” with the firm perspective that “one can never be satisfied” with their quarantine efforts.

However, with strong social controls and crackdowns in the name of quarantine efforts continuing for over a year now, the public is growing ever fatigued.

In particular, a family in Samjiyon, Yanggang Province, was reportedly dragged off to a political prison camp recently after they openly criticized state quarantine policy.

A source in Yanggang Province said all of Samjiyon was put under lockdown after a woman in her 20s returned to the city after illegally crossing the border into China last year. Locals continued to blame the family, which was put under surveillance. Out of anger, the family lashed out at party quarantine policy, and was dragged off to a political prison camp in late October.

In fact, the family said that in countries where people are vaccinated, they consider COVID-19 like the common cold, but in North Korea, the authorities were “refusing to import vaccines while making a fuss by closing the border and deploying special forces [the Storm Corps].”

“Couldn’t you use the money spent to fire rockets to buy vaccines,” they reportedly said before being charged as reactionaries.

North Koreans suffering under the protracted border closure thus want life to return to normal by way of vaccinations. However, it will apparently take considerable time before normal life returns as the authorities seemingly prefer to manage the situation through tough controls and crackdowns, rather than by distributing vaccines.

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