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Are North Korean Soldiers Dying of Coronavirus?

North Korea
Image: KCNA

According to a Daily NK report, two North Korean soldiers recently passed away after suffering from what appeared to have been COVID-19 symptoms. Per the report, the soldiers were placed in a medical isolation ward where they failed to receive any medical treatments beyond temperature checks while the military’s attention was largely focused on a major military workshop that took place in Pyongyang.

The DPRK continues to claim that it has not discovered a single positive case of the COVID-19 virus within its borders, and North Korea remains in a state of isolation from the rest of the world amid its ongoing border closures.

COVID-19 Claims two North Korean Soldiers

Daily NK reported recently that two North Korean soldiers passed away after suffering from symptoms consistent with the COIVD-19 virus. The soldiers – part of the Korean People’s Army Ground Force’s (KPAGF) Eight Corps – were placed into a medical isolation area after displaying symptoms. Once there the two soldiers were reportedly neglected, receiving little in the way of medical treatment or attention even as they became increasingly unwell.

The two soldiers’ isolation coincided with the holding of a major military workshop in the capital city of Pyongyang. Held from July 24-27, the workshop featured an “intensive training course” for commanders and political officers of the Korean People’s Army and was described by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as having provided “a new landmark in modernizing” the North Korean military. The workshop coincided with other military events in Pyongyang and elsewhere across the country celebrating the 68th anniversary of the signing of the armistice agreement that brought an end to the fighting during the Korean War.

The entire military was reportedly placed on special guard duty for the duration of the workshop, and with the military’s attention focused primarily on the conference, the two soldiers in isolation received little attention.

The death of the two soldiers is not the first report suggesting that COVID-19 is negatively impacting the North Korean military. As the KPA geared up for its annual winter training period, which typically runs from December through March, it was reported that some units were struggling to muster a full roster of personnel to take part in the training. Elements of the KPAGF’s First Corps appear to have been struck particularly hard by complications related to the COVID-19 virus. According to reports, the unit was able to field only about half of its usual force for the training, with “malnutrition, desertions, and quarantines related to COVID-19” having taken their toll on the First Corps.

COVID-19 in North Korea

North Korea continues to maintain that it has not detected a positive case of COVID-19 within its borders. The DPRK, which self-reports COVID-19 related information to the World Health Organization, reported in its most recent update that the country had now performed a total of 34,580 COVID-19 tests on suspected cases without identifying a single positive case.

North Korea has maintained a strict border closure since January of 2020 following the emergence of the COVID-19 virus in neighboring China. This has dramatically impacted the country’s economy, with foreign trade plummeting to record low levels. The DPRK may, however, be preparing to resume some level of foreign trade with its largest trading partner in China as it begins to make use of a large new disinfection complex near the DPRK-China border.

North Korea had previously been scheduled to receive roughly 1.7 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine as part of an international vaccine sharing program. The delivery of the vaccines to North Korea has been placed on hold indefinitely, however, with the program citing both a “lack of technical preparedness” in North Korea as well as a global vaccine shortage as reasons for the delay. The World Health Organization has more recently reported that it has been working with North Korea on preparing its supply chains for the storage and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. North Korea does have previous experience with vaccination programs – including those requiring cold storage and distribution, which is a requirement of COVID-19 vaccines – and has worked with international organizations on vaccination campaigns and supply chains in the past.

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.