Novel coronavirus has killed 20+ North Koreans, sources

North Korean authorities are reportedly keeping statistics on the number of fatalities from the virus

While North Korean authorities insist via state media that there are no people infected with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the country, Daily NK has received information suggesting that more than twenty people have died under suspicious circumstances nationwide since January. 

Internally, sources say that the authorities are keeping statistics about people who have died with related symptoms or who are being quarantined, but that the information is being kept secret.

“North Korea’s central emergency disease control command statistics show that 23 people have died of acute pneumonia between January and now,” a high-level government source in North Korea told Daily NK on Feb. 27. “This is the result of counting everyone who died after developing a high fever, cough, and severe respiratory difficulties.”

A total of 82 people with similar symptoms have been quarantined across all regions,” he continued, adding, “Some have been discharged after their symptoms eased, but new patients have continuously arisen.”

According to statistics conveyed by the source, the number of deaths by region as of February 25 was seven in Pyongyang, eight in Sinuiju and four in nearby Ryongchon, both in North Pyongan Province, and two each in the northeastern city of Raseon and Haeju in the southwest. The 82 quarantined includes 16 patients in Pyongyang, 32 in Sinuiju, 12 in Ryongcheon, 15 in Raseon, and seven in Haeju.

With the notable exceptions of Pyongyang and Haeju, the remaining locations are all in the border region abutting China, the epicenter of the virus. The North Korean health authorities believe that in the case of Pyongyang, the virus was spread by Chinese foreign students, and in the case of Haeju by traders travelling to and from the border.

It appears that the deceased and those under quarantine are all either previous visitors to China or came into contact with such persons and subsequently went down with telltale symptoms. But health officials have diagnosed everyone with acute pneumonia.

“The disease control command discussed the situation of local acute pneumonia deaths and quarantine measures, and concluded that there were no novel coronavirus patients,” the source said, adding, “Officials are under orders to tell people that there are no patients and to emphasize thorough preventative measures.”

As in other authoritarian systems, the primary reason why North Korea has responded secretively to the danger of the spread of this infectious disease is due to the risk that public awareness could trigger systemic threats. Accordingly, the North Korean authorities did not publicize anything concerning the possible domestic spread of SARS in 2003, Ebola in 2014, or MERS in 2015. The internal spread of H1N1 (swine flu) in 2009 marks the only occasion in recent memory when North Korea has reported an outbreak of an infectious disease to the World Health Organization. 

North Korea did, however, report on the current spread of coronavirus in South Korea on February 27, saying that the number of patients had increased to 1261 and that the 12th death had occurred.

*Translated by Chris Green

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