Authorities in North Korea have ordered citizens to again wear masks in public just one month after “declaring victory” over COVID-19, sources in the country told RFA.
North Korea had claimed it was entirely virus-free for most of the pandemic. In May 2022, Pyongyang finally admitted that the virus had spread throughout the country after a military parade in April, and authorities declared a “maximum emergency” that included movement restrictions and lockdowns.
The government kept a tally of “fever cases” which reached around 4.8 million people, and state media reported only 75 related deaths. Over the next few months the number of active cases rapidly declined.
On Aug. 10, the country’s leader Kim Jong Un publicly declared victory over the virus and eliminated the maximum emergency restrictions.
Residents are frustrated that they must now wear masks again, even though they’ve been told they won the battle against COVID.
“Starting this month, we must all wear masks in public places again,” a source in the eastern province of South Hamgyong told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“Provincial quarantine authorities sent this order, from the Central Committee [of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party] to the residents through neighborhood watch unit meetings,” said the source.
Authorities sent a mask inspection team to the marketplace near the source’s home, he said.
“Residents who did not wear a mask during the intensive crackdown period, or who sold or purchased goods with a mask on their chin without covering their nose and mouth, were caught and fined,” the source said. The fines are 3,000 won (U.S. $0.37) for no mask and 1,000 won ($0.12) for wearing one improperly.
“They said that the coronavirus crisis was over, but in less than one month they are telling us to wear masks again and they are cracking down more harshly,” he said. “The people are complaining that they are trying to take their money with excessive fines.”
The source added that there are still large numbers of people with suspected coronavirus symptoms, so the authorities have also returned to emergency quarantine measures.
In South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, the inspection teams have been out in force since the beginning of the month at factories, auditoriums, train stations and other crowded places, a source there told RFA.
“It’s like the emergency epidemic prevention system is being restarted, just 21 days after the Highest Dignity [declared victory],” the second source said, using an honorific term to refer to Kim Jong Un. “This is because there are still patients with suspected COVID-19 symptoms such as high fever and acute bronchitis.”
“Nevertheless, the authorities are propagating that even though the rest of the world is in chaos due to the relentless spread of the virus, North Korea has succeeded in preventing it,” he said.
“They say South Korea continues to transmit the virus into our territory by applying the malignant virus on their goods, so we have no choice but to adhere to strict quarantine regulations again,” the second source said.
Direct trade between South and North Korea is currently nonexistent and all South Korean goods that end up in the North typically go in through China, with which North Korea has suspended trade due to the coronavirus.
RFA was unable to confirm transmission of the coronavirus to North Korea via imported South Korean goods.
“Residents are criticizing the authorities for strengthening means of control over residents, lying that the COVID-19 crisis has ended, and repeating false propaganda that they are beefing up COVID-19 prevention measures again because of South Korea,” the second source said.
Translated by Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.