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N. Korea Virus Response Raises Fears   08/06 06:21

   

   SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- North Korea is quarantining thousands of people 
and shipping food and other aid to a southern city locked down over coronavirus 
worries, officials said, as the country's response to a suspected case 
reinforces doubt about its longstanding claim to be virus-free.

   But amid the outside skepticism and a stream of North Korean propaganda 
glorifying its virus efforts, an exchange between the country and the United 
Nations is providing new clarity --- and actual numbers --- about what might be 
happening in North Korea, which has closed its borders and cut travel --- never 
a free-flowing stream --- by outsider monitors and journalists.

   In late July, North Korea said it had imposed its "maximum emergency system" 
to guard against the virus spreading after finding a person with COVID-19 
symptoms in Kaesong city, near the border with rival South Korea.

   State media reported that leader Kim Jong Un then ordered a total lockdown 
of Kaesong, and said the suspected case was a North Korean who had earlier fled 
to South Korea before slipping back into Kaesong last month.

   North Korea's public admission of its first potential case and the emergency 
steps it took prompted immediate outside speculation that it may be worried 
about a big outbreak after months of steadfastly claiming it had no cases. 
Foreign experts are highly skeptical of North Korea's assertion of no cases, in 
large part because of its long, porous border with China, where the virus 
emerged, and its history of hiding past disease outbreaks.

   In a report to the World Health Organization, North Korea said it has 
quarantined 64 first contacts of the suspected Keasong case and 3,571 secondary 
contacts in state-run facilities for a period of 40 days, according to Dr. 
Edwin Salvador, WHO representative to North Korea.

   Salvador said in an email to The Associated Press that North Korea also 
informed WHO of the suspected first case, saying the person was tested for 
COVID-19 but the results were inconclusive. Salvador said WHO has requested 
that North Korea share more information about the person.

   Salvador said all of North Korea's borders remain closed, group gatherings 
are banned, masks are required in public, and all educational institutions, 
including preschools, are on an extended summer break. Since the end of 
December, North Korea has quarantined and released 25,905 people, 382 of them 
foreigners, Salvador said.

   Many outside observers are all but certain the virus has already entered 
North Korea because it closed its border with China, its biggest trading 
partner, weeks after the world's first known virus cases were recorded in China 
in December. Monitoring groups in Seoul have steadfastly reported about North 
Korean virus cases and deaths.

   A major coronavirus outbreak may cause a humanitarian disaster because of 
North Korea's broken public health care system and lack of medical supplies.

   But it's unclear how serious North Korea's current situation is.

   "Though a really extensive local outbreak might not have occurred yet, it's 
likely that a considerable number of people has been infected," said analyst 
Hong Min at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification. "Even though 
North Korea locks itself down, there should be suspected cases there and 
authorities must aggressively diagnose them. But North Korea has never been 
transparent about whether it has such a capacity and the will to do so."

   North Korea's state media have recently churned out articles thick with 
rallying propaganda that describe the latest anti-virus work as "an 
all-people's campaign" that demonstrates the Kim government's resolve to 
protect public safety "at any cost." The articles also say that any individual 
carelessness or breach of anti-virus guidelines may lead to "critical 
consequences."

   State media said North Korea has deployed more health workers, sanitized 
personnel and goods, and used loudspeakers to raise public awareness of the 
virus. The Korean Central News Agency said Thursday that 550,000 aid items have 
been sent to Kaesong.

   North Korea's claimed emergency steps suggest that an outbreak there may 
have worsened, said Kim Sin-gon, a professor at Korea University College of 
Medicine in Seoul. North Korea may also aim to win aid from South Korea or 
others, but wants to save face by saying its suspected Kaesong case is someone 
who had been in South Korea, he said.

   Before returning to North Korea, the suspected first case, identified in 
South Korea as a 24-year-old man surnamed Kim, hadn't tested positive in South 
Korea and never had contact with any patient, South Korean health official Yoon 
Taeho said.

   The motive for his return to North Korea isn't known. More than 33,000 North 
Koreans have escaped to South Korea over the past 22 years for political and 
economic reasons, but only a handful have returned to North Korea.

   Police said the man was questioned in June on an allegation that he had 
sexually assaulted a female North Korean refugee. The man denied the 
accusation. Last month, the national forensic service told police it found DNA 
evidence of the assault, and police were continuing to investigate, according 
to the Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police Agency.

 
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