Splendid Isolation: North Korea and COVID-19

While the world contends with over two million people afflicted by the COVID-19 virus, North Korea appears to live in splendid isolation from the virus.  The regime claims that it has no confirmed cases and has offered to help China in dealing with its pandemic.  But North Korea is the most opaque regime and little said by the government can be taken at face value.  As Sue Terry argues, it is hard to imagine that North Korea has no cases of COVID-19 given the unique transmission vector from China and its geographic location, sandwiched between the two earliest hotspots for the pandemic.  Should the virus have made its way into North Korea, the public health risks are real given the decrepit state of its public health infrastructure.
Given the absence of any epidemiological studies in North Korea, researchers are left guessing about the true state of conditions inside of the country.  
CSIS created a unique dataset chronicling actions taken by North Korea in response to the last two major pandemics, Ebola (2014) and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (2015).  We then compared these findings with NK Pro’s study of North Korea's behavior during COVID-19.

Key Points

  • Splendid isolation: North Korean leaders claimed they have not confirmed any cases of COVID-19, but they made the same negative claims regarding Ebola and MERS.
  • Suspend movement: Despite the alleged absence of cases, in all three cases North Korea restricted internal movements.
  • Pivot to assistance:  Despite claiming it had no cases, North Korea requested assistance with medical equipment from South Korea through Kaesong during the Ebola and MERS crises.  Because Kaesong is closed now, North Korea has made similar requests of the United Nations.
  • Cancelled sporting events: In all three cases, North Korea cancelled major international sporting events, presumably to reduce the chances of importing the virus.
  • Stricter border customs: In all three cases, North Korea has tightened customs procedures.
  • While the commonalities in the DPRK response to past pandemics does not provide us definitive insights into the current COVID-19 situation, it does tell us that North Korea appears to have a "playbook” when it comes to health pandemics. A timeline of North Korean responses to COVID-19 shows this playbook is now being implemented just as it was in past pandemics.

This is a joint product by the CSIS Korea Chair and NK Pro of the Korea Risk Group.
Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair