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[Analysis] The COVID-19 outbreak in North Korea

 On 11 August 2022, North Korea declared victory over COVID-19 and blamed the North Korean outbreak on leaflets from South Korea, while warning of "deadly retaliation."1) Earlier on 1 July, North Korean health authorities insisted that the initial COVID-19 outbreak began after two North Korean came into contact with “alien things” along its border with South Korea.2) "Alien things" were objects such as leaflets, bank notes, and booklets flown by balloons by South Korean human rights advocates. 

Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora followed North Korean claims, saying that it was undoubtedly confirmed that COVID-19 made inroads in North Korea from South Korea(8.19, Rossiyskaya Gazeta).3) In contrast, Western scientists, journalists, and the South Korean government refuted the connection between leaflets sent over the border and COVID-19 cases in North Korea.4)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared victory over COVID-19 on August 11

North Korea asserts that balloons carrying objects like papers and banknotes from the South transferred coronavirus, assuming the virus could spread via fomites. However, North Korea's argument has a significant flaw. According to scientific studies,  there is little evidence to support that coronavirus(SARS-CoV-2) passes from one person to another through contaminated surfaces. 

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that the risk of coronavirus infection via the fomite transmission route is low, and generally, less than 1 in 10,000.5) Professor Emanuel Goldman, a microbiologist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, says that “the chance of transmission through inanimate surfaces is very small, and only in instances where an infected person coughs or sneezes on the surface, and someone else touches that surface soon after the cough or sneeze(within 1-2 hours).”6)

CDC's report about Covid-19 Surface(Fomite) Transmission

 Meanwhile, recent studies show that the coronavirus' viability on an object's surface does not last long. It is well known that coronavirus remains infectious for three days on bank notes and 3-6 hours on aluminum.7) However, many researchers stress that those numbers are exaggerated because they do not test conditions that exist outside the lab, real-world conditions. Tal Brosh-Nissimov, the head of the Infectious Diseases Unit, Assuta Ashdod University Hospital in Israel, studied the viability of coronavirus outside the lab, swabbing items in hospital isolation units and rooms at a quarantined hotel. Half of the samples from two hospitals and more than one-third from the quarantine hotel were positive for viral RNA. But none of the viral material was able to infect cells.8) As a result, it is merely groundless propaganda for North Korea to argue that they were infected by touching the leaflets.

 Most activists floating balloons across the border are North Korean defectors. They launch balloons to herald the truth of the North Korean regime to their family and compatriots in North Korea and to deliver outside information and necessities like medicine. It is unimaginable to spread coronavirus, which can jeopardize their families in North Korea. Only a dictatorial North Korean regime ignoring human rights can use these absurd sophistries. Also, these North Korean human rights activists do not have professional medical skills to collect coronavirus and include it in fomites. If they attempt to send balloons containing coronavirus, they may well be exposed to the dangers of COVID-19 by themselves. They are not so stupid to do that recklessly.

North Korean taking preventive measures under Propaganda Slogan

 The absence of scientific quarantine measures, inaccurate statistics, and lack of available information prohibit even scholars from thoroughly checking North Korea's claims. However, we could find a clue to the outbreak of North Korea in late April and May 2022 from massive infections in northeast China which borders North Korea. Starting in late April, a skyrocketing number of infections displaying suspected symptoms of COVID-19 in Sinuiju were closely intertwined with China, not South Korea. Despite the irrelevance, the North's intention to blame the South for the COVID-19 outbreak in the North is obvious. North Korea throws South Korea under the bus to quell discontent from below, resulting from chronic food shortages and a global pandemic.  

 NK Forum

Senior Researcher

Andrew Kim

1) Korea Central News Agency. (2022, August 11). Vice Department Director of WPK Central Committee Makes Speech at Anti-Epidemic Work Reviewing Meeting.

2) Korea Central News Agency. (2022, July 1). Route of COVID-19 Inroads Verified in DPRK.

3) Олег Кирьянов. (2022, August 19). Посол РФ Александр Мацегора: Как КНДР победила COVID-19. Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

4) Shin, H.H., & Choi, S.H. (2022, August 11). S.Korea expresses regret over N. Korea's 'groundless claim' over COVID, threats. Reuters.

5) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, April 5). SARS-CoV-2 and Surface (Fomite) Transmission for Indoor Community Environments.

6) Goldman, Emanuel. Exaggerated risk of transmission of COVID-19 by fomites. Lancet, 2020; 20(8): 892-893.

7) Sizun, J., Yu, M.W., & Talbot, P.J. Survival of human coronaviruses 229E and OC43 in suspension and after drying on surfaces: a possible source of hospital-acquired infections. J Hosp Infect. 2000; 46: 55-60.

8) Ben-Shmuel, A. et al. Detection and infectivity potential of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) environmental contamination in isolation units and quarantine facilities. Clin. Microbiol. Infect. 2020; 26(12): 1658–1662.


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