Coronavirus: North Korea claims to have no cases, but what is really happening?

North Korea has a population of 25 million people but hasn’t reported a single case of coronavirus.

The notoriously secret nation maintains no one within its borders has caught COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

However, this claim has not been verified by scientists from outside the country.

And its neighbour, South Korea, is adamant that the North has been affected by the pandemic.

On Friday, South Korean prime minister Chung Sye-kyun said the “situation is probably not good in North Korea”, adding that the government in Pyongyang has yet to request help from the South.

Earlier this month, General Robert Abrams, commander of US Forces Korea, said the US is “fairly certain” the North has had cases of coronavirus.

“Their armed forces has been on lockdown for about 30 days, and only recently have they started routine training again,” he said on 13 March.

“They didn’t fly an aeroplane for 24 days.”

In early March, South Korean media reported that up to 180 North Korean soldiers had died from COVID-19.

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There have been more than 9,600 cases of coronavirus in South Korea, according to Johns Hopkins University, with 158 deaths and more than 5,200 recoveries.

South Korea has been widely praised for its response to the crisis, including mass testing, contact tracing and strict quarantines.

Commuters wearing face masks ride a tramcar in Pyongyang on February 26, 2020. - The novel coronavirus has killed over 2,700 people and infected more than 80,000 in 34 countries, although the vast majority of cases remain in China, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). (Photo by KIM Won Jin / AFP) (Photo by KIM WON JIN/AFP via Getty Images)
Commuters in face masks on a tram in Pyongyang, North Korea, last month. (AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Financial Times reported that Pyongyang has secretly asked for international help to increase coronavirus testing.

The newspaper said at least 590 people have been tested, all of whom arrived from overseas in January and all with negative results.

There are fears that an outbreak in North Korea could have disastrous results, given the country’s vulnerable health system and extensive poverty.

What has North Korea done to tackle coronavirus?

North Korea has taken a number of extreme measures to tackle the spread of COVID-19.

As a neighbour of China, where the virus originated, North Korea was one of the first nations to take swift action.

In January it banned foreign tourists from entering the country, and a state of emergency was declared.

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Anyone who entered the country after 13 January was placed under medical supervision, state media reported.

By 20 February, schools in North Korea began to close in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Up to 10,000 people have been quarantined inside North Korea in the past two months, according to state media.

In an attempted display of strength, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has continued with a series of missile tests during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the latest test, on Sunday, two suspected missiles were fired from the North’s eastern coastal city of Wonsan, ending up in water between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

South Korea branded the launches as "very inappropriate" amid the coronavirus outbreak.

People watch a news broadcast showing file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul on March 29, 2020. - North Korea fired what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast on March 29, the fourth such launch this month as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP) (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)
South Koreans in Seoul watch news footage of a North Korean missile test at the weekend. (AFP via Getty Images)

Read more: North Korea ‘sends 500 workers to patrol Chinese border over coronavirus fears’

North Korea has fired a series of missiles and artillery shells in recent weeks in an apparent attempt to upgrade its military capability amid deadlocked nuclear talks with the US.

The talks have stalled since the breakdown of a second summit between Kim and US president Donald Trump in Vietnam in early 2019.

A week ago, Pyongyang said Trump had sent a personal letter to Kim, seeking to maintain good relations and offering cooperation in fighting the outbreak.

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