SEOUL: The coronavirus epidemic has reached North Korea despite its regime’s claims that it is immune to the disease that has originated in neighboring China, a top US general said on Friday.
“It is a closed-off nation, so we can’t say emphatically that they have cases. But we’re fairly certain they do,” Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of US Forces Korea and US-South Korea Combined Forces Command, said during a video conference with Pentagon reporters.
The four-star general has the authority to command and control both the US and South Korean military in case of war with the North. About 28,000 US troops are stationed in South Korea as a deterrent against nuclear-armed North Korea.
Abrams said North Korean forces appear to have “been on lockdown for about 30 days,” as intelligence sources indicate that the North’s air force has not flown any airplanes for the past 24 days.
North Korea’s recent test launches of short-range projectiles off its eastern coast were referred to by Abrams as “routine training again.”
Observers, however, see the move as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s attempt to distract public attention from the health situation. The country, which lacks proper health care infrastructure, may have no diagnostic capability to test people who show coronavirus symptoms.
“The latest test launch of projectiles appears to have something to do with the spread of the coronavirus,” said Park Won-dong, a professor of international politics at Handong University in Pohang, in the province of North Gyeongsang.
Pyongyang has not reported a single coronavirus case, but it has sealed off the border with China. North Korea’s state media has said the country is taking active measures to prevent local outbreaks.
Some South Korean media outlets reported last week that Pyongyang made an unofficial request to Seoul for the provision of face masks, but it was turned down as South Koreans were also struggling to secure protective gear in the wake of the outbreak.
According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 107 new cases were reported on Saturday, slightly down from 110 new cases a day earlier and 114 on Thursday. The nation’s total tally reached 8,806 cases.