North Korean military authorities are in shock after mass deaths occurred at hospitals for soldiers suspected of having COVID-19, multiple sources inside the country have reported. 

News of the deaths made it all the way to the desk of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who was reportedly furious. The deaths are believed to have been the “decisive reason” for the call to strengthen COVID-19 quarantine efforts during the expanded politburo meeting on Thursday.

A military source in Gangwon Province told Daily NK on Monday that 45 soldiers died in July and August at a temporary ward for “infectious diseases” operated by the headquarters of Second Corps. “The ward was closed and the patients moved to another makeshift facility after the total was reported to the Army Health Bureau under the title of ‘Death Statistics for the Operational and Combat Political Training Period of 2020-2021,’” he said.

Likewise, a military source in Nampo said on Saturday that the Army Health Bureau received statistics on deaths at a Second Corps COVID-19 ward during the summer and winter training periods. “The hospital is in a chaotic state after being reprimanded,” he said. This means the ward was rebuked by its superiors due to the unexpectedly high number of deaths.

The problem does not stop there. Military authorities are rumored to be in a state of shock as general statistics reveal far more deaths than expected across the entire military.

Front-line corps such as the First and Second Corps had the highest numbers of deaths, followed by corps stationed along the Sino-North Korean frontier and command headquarters. The next highest number of deaths were recorded by “rear-area corps” and training camps. The Second and Third Corps had the highest number of deaths at wards for suspected COVID-19 cases.

“[North Korean military authorities] seem quite shocked that there were this many deaths, despite putting the strongest quarantine measures in place,” said the source. “The Supreme Leader [Kim Jong Un] was also very angry, and they’re saying that the only thing to do is call loudly for more intensified quarantine efforts.” 

Lackadaisical measures are apparently to blame for the mass deaths.

North Korean soldiers electricity discharge chinese
North Korean soldiers walking near Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province. / Image: Daily NK

Until last year, with military authorities believing the COVID-19 pandemic would soon end, military units employed temporary expediencies such as converting a floor of a tuberculosis ward into a COVID-19 ward or putting beds in a warehouse to quarantine suspected cases.

However, with the military ordering mass quarantines due to outbreaks of fever across all corps during the winter training period, which began from Dec. 1, the authorities began building temporary makeshift facilities deep in the mountains, far from the units themselves. This means COVID-19 quarantines had been carried out in clumsy fashion.

Moreover, there were no precise “diagnoses” or “treatments” handed out by doctors to patients. 

The source said patients suffering from tuberculosis, hepatitis or even colds were “mercilessly” placed in the temporary wards “as if they’d been kidnapped” and failed to receive precise diagnoses regarding their ailments.

They were given “no medical or pathological treatment whatsoever, just a daily temperature check and a daily dose of sunlight,” the source explained. 

Patients were given no proper nutrition, either. Quarantined soldiers were given just 450 grams of cold mixed grains (150 grams per meal) and black salted cabbage soup a day. 

Unable to reveal the existence of these temporary wards, military units attempted to cover up the deaths, informing families that the soldiers had died in “accidents.” However, after quarreling with the military to receive certificates that their loved ones died in action, the bereaved families appealed to the Ministry of Defense as a last resort.

Only after being rebuked by the ministry did military units start filing proper reports. Word then started making its way to some military families as well. According to the source, families worry that the military “cannot guarantee another mass death won’t happen when soldiers have to live together in a barracks.”

Meanwhile, in accordance with military regulations, the Army Health Bureau must write an evaluation every August — one month prior to the conclusion of the year’s training on Sept. 30 — detailing the number of hospitalizations across the entire military, along with the number of deaths during the training period and the causes.

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.
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Jeong Tae Joo is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. He focuses on North Korean military matters. Please direct any questions about his articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.