North Korea’s claim to have an exceptionally low number of coronavirus deaths — amid a severe wave of cases that has seen millions infected — has been met with deep scepticism by experts and observers.
The hermit kingdom claims that as of Thursday, nearly 3.3 million people had been ill with “fever” – a euphemism used by Pyongyang for Covid-19 – while the death toll stands at just 69.
This fatality rate of 0.002 per cent, which is one of the lowest in the world, has been met with concerns that North Korea is trying to hide the actual number of deaths related to the virus.
The isolated nation shut down its borders at the onset of the pandemic in 2020 but only publicly acknowledged its first case of Covid-19 earlier this month, on 12 May.
Experts fear that the country of 26 million must have suffered a greater number of deaths given its lack of healthcare facilities, limited testing kits and access to medicines and vaccines.
The North was ranked 193 out of 195 countries by Johns Hopkins University in 2021 for its ability to deal with an epidemic.
The United Nations has previously stated that at least 40 per cent of the country’s population is believed to be undernourished and its public health care system has been in shambles for decades.
“North Korea wouldn’t really care about fatalities at all. Many North Koreans have already died of malaria, measles, chickenpox and typhoid. There are all kind of infectious diseases there,” said Choi Jung Hun, a defector who worked as a doctor in North Korea in the 2000s.
Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un deployed the military to regulate and stabilise the distribution of medicines in capital Pyongyang after lambasting the “irresponsible” approach of the cabinet and health officials to the pandemic.
Calling the outbreak a “great upheaval”, Mr Kim has asked officials to “actively follow” the accounts of Chinese health officials in imposing a strict quarantine policy, suggesting that Pyongyang could duplicate Beijing’s strategy to curb the spread of the virus.
Lee Yo Han, a professor at Ajou University Graduate School of Public Health in South Korea, said that “scientifically, their figures can’t be accepted”, as public data “were likely all controlled [by the authorities] and embedded with their political intentions”.
North Korea has said an unidentified fever has been explosively spreading across the country since late April, while carefully evading the word Covid-19.
The spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is likely to have originated from a 25 April military parade in Pyongyang that Mr Kim organised to show off his missile might.
It is believed that the government is suppressing the death toll to show the 38-year-old dictator’s victory in the fight against Covid-19 and bolster his image in the west.
“Diverse public complaints have accumulated, so it’s time to [strengthen] internal control. Kim Jong-un has been taking the lead in the anti-epidemic efforts to show that his campaign is very successful and to reinforce his grip on power,” Choi Kang, president of Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said.
Earlier, South Korea’s spy agency reportedly told lawmakers that “a considerable number” of the fever cases reported by the North include people sick with measles, typhoid and pertussis.
Additional reporting by agencies