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North Korea’s cruel response to the spread of COVID-19

One day in August 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread throughout the world, a fever of unknown origin began to sweep through the dwellings of the soldiers of a unit stationed in Ongjin County, South Hwanghae Province.

In the early morning hours of the second day of the fever, the families of the soldiers all received a notice from the unit’s family guidance department informing them that their husbands would “eat and sleep with their unit for two weeks due to an emergency mobilization order, starting tonight.” They were also ordered to gather at the homes of their husbands’ platoon commanders to watch a video prepared by the unit’s political department.

The video was a North Korean production about how millions of people around the world were contracting COVID-19 every day. It also said that the disease was most severe in South Korea and gave the names of specific hospitals, such as Seoul National University Medical Center, Ajou University Hospital, Chung-Ang University Hospital, and Pusan National University Hospital, along with the number of deaths.

North Korea worked hard to instill fear of COVID-19 in people who watched the video, including scenes of someone allegedly using a forklift to bury people who had died of the disease that very day.

The unit’s family guidance department warned that if so many people were dying in rich developed countries, North Korea would be destroyed if COVID-19 entered the country. It also urged families to obey the national quarantine law while the heads of their households – “who are unit commanders before they are husbands and fathers” – lived with their unit.

In fact, when the families returned to their homes immediately after the video indoctrination, soldiers mobilized by the unit locked their doors from the outside and nailed their windows shut to keep the families inside.

Thus, the soldiers’ families were confined to their homes for two weeks while the heads of the households lived with their unit, ostensibly to enforce the national quarantine law. No advance notice was given.

When they finally returned home two weeks later, some soldiers found their families lying on the floor, collapsed from hunger. Others were greeted by dead bodies.

Those who protested were sent to re-education camps

In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea often ordered people to isolate themselves at home without warning, giving them no time to prepare, citing the national quarantine law.

The bodies of family members who died after being confined to their homes without the opportunity to store food beforehand were cremated en masse per the quarantine regulations of the time. The devastated soldiers who had lost their families vented their anger, but since the authorities regarded the national quarantine law as a wartime law, they had to swallow their tears quietly, unable to protest properly.

Family members who broke down their doors and stormed out of their homes because of hunger were all tried as “traitors who violated the national quarantine orders” and sent to re-education camps.

A resident of Ongjin County recalled the situation at the time. “Civilians learned about the international situation by surfing their TV channels, so they weren’t so scared,” he said. “But many of the people living in the soldiers’ homes died because they were too inflexible.”

“It seemed that more people went to re-education camps for violating the quarantine law, or starved to death while locked up at home because they couldn’t earn anything, than during the Arduous March,” the source said, referring to the mass starvation of the 1990s. “I still vividly remember the people who fought to avoid starvation, even if it meant stealing things.”

Translated by David Black. Edited by Robert Lauler.

Daily NK works with a network of sources living in North Korea, China, and elsewhere. Their identities remain anonymous for security reasons. For more information about Daily NK’s network of reporting partners and information-gathering activities, please visit our FAQ page here.

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Read in Korean

March 05, 2024 at 11:30AM

by DailyNK(North Korean Media)

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