Tea and infomercials: N. Korea fights COVID with few tools

May 18, 2022, 9:54 PM | Updated: May 19, 2022, 11:09 am
FILE - In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, cent...

FILE - In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, visits a pharmacy in Pyongyang, North Korea on May 15, 2022. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. Korean language watermark on image as provided by source reads: "KCNA" which is the abbreviation for Korean Central News Agency. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)

(Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — On a recent nighttime visit to a drugstore, a double-masked Kim Jong Un lamented the slow delivery of medicine. Separately, the North Korean leader’s lieutenants have quarantined hundreds of thousands of suspected COVID-19 patients and urged people with mild symptoms to take willow leaf or honeysuckle tea.

Despite what the North’s propaganda is describing as an all-out effort, the fear is palpable among citizens, according to defectors in South Korea with contacts in the North, and some outside observers worry the outbreak may get much worse, with much of an impoverished, unvaccinated population left without enough hospital care and struggling to afford even simple medicine.

“North Koreans know so many people around the world have died because of COVID-19, so they have fear that some of them could die, too,” said Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector, citing her phone calls with contacts in the northern North Korean city of Hyesan. She said people who can afford it are buying traditional medicine to deal with their anxieties.

Since admitting what it called its first domestic COVID-19 outbreak one week ago, North Korea has been fighting to handle a soaring health crisis that has intensified public anxiety over a virus it previously claimed to have kept at bay.

The country’s pandemic response appears largely focused on isolating suspected patients. That may be all it can really do, as it lacks vaccines, antiviral pills, intensive care units and other medical assets that ensured millions of sick people in other countries survived.

North Korean health authorities said Thursday that a fast-spreading fever has killed 63 people and sickened about 2 million others since late April, while about 740,000 remain quarantined. Earlier this week, North Korea said its total COVID-19 caseload stood at 168 despite rising fever cases. Many foreign experts doubt the figures and believe the scale of the outbreak is being underreported to prevent public unrest that could hurt Kim’s leadership.

State media said a million public workers were mobilized to identify suspected patients. Kim Jong Un also ordered army medics deployed to support the delivery of medicines to pharmacies, just before he visited drugstores in Pyongyang at dawn Sunday.

North Korea also uses state media outlets — newspapers, state TV and radio — to offer tips on how to deal with the virus to citizens, most of whom have no access to the internet and foreign news.

“It is crucial that we find every person with fever symptoms so that they can be isolated and treated, to fundamentally block the spaces where the infectious disease could spread,” Ryu Yong Chol, an official at Pyongyang’s anti-virus headquarters, said on state TV Wednesday.

State TV aired infomercials showing animated characters advising people to see doctors if they have breathing problems, spit up blood or faint. They also explain what medicines patients can take, including home remedies such as honey tea. The country’s main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, advised people with mild symptoms to brew 4 to 5 grams of willow or honeysuckle leaves in hot water and drink that three times a day.

“Their guidelines don’t make a sense at all. It’s like the government is asking people to contact doctors only if they have breathing difficulties, which means just before they die,” said former North Korean agriculture official Cho Chung Hui, who fled to South Korea in 2011. “My heart aches when I think about my brother and sister in North Korea and their suffering.”

Kang, who runs a company analyzing the North Korean economy, said her contacts in Hyesan told her that North Korean residents are being asked to thoroughly read Rodong Sinmun’s reports on how the country is working to stem the outbreak.

Since May 12, North Korea has banned travel between regions, but it hasn’t attempted to impose more severe lockdowns in imitation of China. North Korea’s economy is fragile due to pandemic border closures and decades of mismanagement, so the country has encouraged farming, construction and other industrial activities be accelerated. Kang said people in Hyesan still go to work.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed worry this week about the consequences of North Korea’s quarantine measures, saying isolation and traveling restrictions will have dire consequences for people already struggling to meet their basic needs, including getting enough food to eat.

“Children, lactating mothers, older people, the homeless and those living in more isolated rural and border areas are especially vulnerable,” the office said in a statement.

Defectors in South Korea say they worry about their loved ones in North Korea. They also suspect COVID-19 had already spread to North Korea even before its formal admission of the outbreak.

“My father and sibling are still in North Korea and I’m worrying about them a lot because they weren’t inoculated and there aren’t many medicines there,” said Kang Na-ra, who fled to South Korea in late 2014. She said a sibling told her during recent phone calls that their grandmother died of pneumonia, which she believes was caused by COVID-19, last September.

Defector Choi Song-juk said that when her farmer sister in North Korea last called her in February, she said that her daughter and many neighbors had been sick with coronavirus-like symptoms such as a high fever, coughing and sore throat. Choi said her sister pays brokers to arrange phone calls, but she hasn’t called recently, even though it’s around the time of year when she runs short of food and needs money transfers via a network of brokers. Choi said the disconnection is likely related to anti-virus restrictions on movements.

“I feel so sad. I must connect with her again because she must be without food and picking wild greens,” said Choi, who left North Korea in 2015.

In recent years, Kim Jong Un has built some modern hospitals and improved medical systems, but critics say it’s mostly for the country’s ruling elite and that the free socialist medical service is in shambles. Recent defectors say there are lots of domestically produced drugs at markets now but they have quality issues so people prefer South Korean, Chinese and Russian medicines. But foreign medications are typically expensive, so poor people, who are a majority of the North’s population, cannot afford them.

“If you are sick in North Korea, we often say you will die,” Choi said.

Despite the outbreak, North Korea hasn’t publicly responded to South Korean and U.S. offers of medical aid. World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday that the world body “is deeply concerned at the risk of further spread” in North Korea and the lack of information about the outbreak.

Choi Jung Hun, a former North Korean doctor who resettled in South Korea, suspects North Korea is using its pandemic response as a tool to promote Kim’s image as a leader who cares about the public and to solidify internal unity. He says the country’s understated fatalities could also be exploited as a propaganda tool.

“One day, they’ll say they’ve contained COVID-19. By comparing its death toll with that of the U.S. and South Korea, they’ll say they’ve done a really good job and their anti-epidemic system is the world’s best,” said Choi, now a researcher at a Korea University-affiliated institute in South Korea.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


FILE - Signs on the wall remind students to keep 6 feet apart during a media tour of the Norris Mid...
Associated Press

CDC drops quarantine, distancing recommendations for COVID

NEW YORK (AP) — The nation’s top public health agency relaxed its COVID-19 guidelines Thursday, dropping the recommendation that Americans quarantine themselves if they come into close contact with an infected person. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also said people no longer need to stay at least 6 feet away from others. The […]
18 hours ago
Greenwood Police Chief James Ison speak during a press conference at the Greenwood City Center in G...
Associated Press

FBI: Data from mall gunman’s laptop cannot be recovered

GREENWOOD, Ind. (AP) — Data cannot be recovered from the laptop of the 20-year-old man who allegedly shot five people in a suburban Indianapolis shopping mall, killing three of them, the FBI said Thursday. Agents were unable to recover data from the laptop found in the gunman’s oven, Herb Stapleton, the special agent in charge […]
18 hours ago
Scott Peterson walks into a courtroom at the San Mateo County Superior Court in Redwood City, Calif...
Associated Press

Judge to decide if Scott Peterson victim of jury misconduct

Scott Peterson’s trial attorney missed an opportunity to grill a California juror about bias who eventually helped send him to death row for murdering his pregnant wife and unborn child, his appellate lawyer conceded Thursday while arguing the former fertilizer salesman deserves a new trial because of juror misconduct. Attorney Cliff Gardner, who alleges juror […]
18 hours ago
FILE - Packages riding on a belt are scanned to be loaded onto delivery trucks at the Amazon Fulfil...
Associated Press

OSHA investigates deaths of Amazon workers in New Jersey

Federal work-safety investigators are looking into the death of an Amazon worker and an injury that potentially led to the death of another employee, adding to a probe already underway following a third fatality during the company’s annual Prime Day shopping event in mid-July. All three Amazon workers died within the past month and were […]
18 hours ago
FILE - New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference at New York's Yankee Stadium on J...
Associated Press

Cuomo: Taxpayers should pay sexual harassment legal bills

NEW YORK (AP) — Former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants taxpayers to foot his legal bills as he defends himself against a workplace sexual harassment claim — and he’s suing the state’s attorney general over it. Cuomo filed the suit against Attorney General Letitia James on Thursday. He’s arguing that James violated state law […]
18 hours ago
Associated Press

Northwestern selects Oregon’s Schill to be next president

EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — University of Oregon President Michael Schill will assume that office at Northwestern University this fall, the Evanston school’s board of trustees announced Thursday. Schill has led Oregon since 2015. He previously served as the law school dean at the University of Chicago and at UCLA. He earned a degree in public […]
18 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Ways to prevent clogged drains and what to do if you’re too late

While there are a variety of ways to prevent clogged drains, it's equally as important to know what to do when you're already too late.
Dr. Richard Carmona

Great news: Children under 5 can now get COVID-19 vaccine

After more than two years of battle with an invisible killer, we can now vaccinate the youngest among us against COVID-19. This is great news.
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Update your child’s vaccines before kindergarten

So, your little one starts kindergarten soon. How exciting! You still have a few months before the school year starts, so now’s the time to make sure students-to-be have the vaccines needed to stay safe as they head into a new chapter of life.
Tea and infomercials: N. Korea fights COVID with few tools