The North Korean government conducting senior-level meetings by video conference instead of meeting face to face, as fears over the spread of the novel coronavirus reach even high-ranking senior officials in the reclusive country, including Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un himself, sources in the North told RFA.
Pyongyang has yet to publicly acknowledge a confirmed case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party has been holding its high-level meetings via video conference since early February, and has also ordered the military to do the same.
“Due to the recent outbreak of the new coronavirus, the Central Committee’s morning conference has transformed into a video conferencing format,” a Pyongyang official told RFA’s Korean Service.
“The senior level meetings attended by the Highest Dignity every morning have changed to video meetings,” the source said, employing an honorific phrase commonly used to refer to Kim Jong Un.
The source said that normally senior officials of the Central Committee would attend a morning conference as soon as they enter the office.
“The morning conference that the Highest Dignity attends is an important meeting to determine the key policies of the party and cabinet, where the decisions will be forwarded to the departments and agencies,” the source said.
“As the coronavirus situation became more serious, they started video conferencing for senior level meetings from early February. But only the meetings between the Highest Dignity and the senior level officials are held as conferences and officials below the senior are were still meeting face to face,” said the source.
“Officials and residents are complaining about [this]. They say that it pretty much means [the government] only cares about the Highest Dignity and those around him being infected, but it is okay if lower level officials get infected,” the source said.
But the source said that all the caution surrounding Kim Jong Un is causing people to believe that SARS-CoV-2 has entered the country.
“It has been reported that due to the coronavirus, all contact with the Highest Dignity, no matter how close is prohibited. With the news that he is holding meetings via video conference, people here in Pyongyang are now doubly afraid of the virus.”
Military complies with CC’s orders
A source affiliated with the military in North Hamgyong province told RFA on the same day how the military is complying with the Central Committee’s orders.
“Battalion commanders or higher ranked [officers] who commute from private houses to military units were ordered not to have direct contact with the soldiers they command,” the second source said.
“As most of the higher-ranking officers live with their families in private houses outside of military bases, [they] have regular contact with ordinary citizens, so they are not allowed to have contact with the soldiers because they might pass the coronavirus to them,” the second source added.
“[They] are required to deliver orders down the chain of command by telephone,” the second source said.
“So face to face contact between commanders and soldiers is prohibited, and that’s causing confusion in the military command system.”
COVID-19 at top of news broadcasts
North Korea’s media is drilling the point home that the coronavirus is a serious problem by airing news about the virus ahead of reports on Kim Jong Un in news broadcasts.
Under normal circumstances, news of the Supreme Leader’s activities is always first in any news program, but over the past few days, news of the virus has been the top story.
“Residents have been made aware that the coronavirus situation is becoming a very serious problem. They say it is extremely unusual for the propaganda media to release news about the coronavirus [as the first item in a broadcast],” a North Hamgyong resident told RFA on Sunday.
The third source confirmed that television, radio and even newspapers have reports on the coronavirus ahead of propaganda about Kim.
“On the streets, we can see most people wearing masks and entering public places,” the third source said.
Another source, a resident of Ryanggang province told RFA on the same day, “It is the first time in my whole life that I’ve seen quarantine of patients in China and other countries as it truly is on our regularly scheduled propaganda,”
“People who have never seen high-tech medical equipment because they are used to what we have here are envious of what they see, but they are much more anxious about what they would do if they catch the new virus.”
Money from refugees blocked by SARS-CoV-2
The coronavirus is also preventing North Korean refugees, defectors, and overseas workers from sending money into North Korea via go-betweens in China, as roads between the northeast Asian neighbors have been closed.
Kim Joo-il, the Secretary General of the London-based International North Korea's Association for Human Rights and Democracy (INKAHRD), told RFA Tuesday that strong measures such as closing the border with China and strengthening crackdowns could have a huge impact on North Koreans’ domestic life as well as trade and business.
“Most of the money from family members [in foreign countries] to North Koreans has traditionally been sent through brokers, but it can’t be delivered these days,” said Kim.
“North Korean defectors are unable to send money to their families not only in South Korea, but also in the UK and Europe,” he added.
Kim, a former refugee who now lives in New York, said that a relative in North Korea urgently needs surgery to treat cancer, but he is unable to send dollars to help because the border with China has been blocked.
Ma Youngae, a former North Korean agent who defected, then became the head of INKAHRD told RFA on the Tuesday that she has heard stories of North Korean residents who have been suffering because they aren’t getting money from abroad.
“You need [to be able to send] money if your family in North Korea has cancer, an urgent illness, or needs major surgery,” she said.
Ma spoke of North Korea’s crumbling medical infrastructure that once was praised to providing free medical care to all in decades past, but now requires that patients have money.
“As recent as 10 years ago, people could get medical treatment at no cost, but now there is no such thing as free treatment in North Korea. It’s hard to get antibiotic shots even at hospitals. So people spend a lot of money to buy it on their own and bring it to the hospital.”
Russia, a traditional ally of North Korea, responded to the crisis with a donation of testing kits.
“Due to the persisting risk of the new COVID-19 infection, Russia has donated 1,500 coronavirus diagnostic test kits to Pyongyang at the request of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. We hope that this step will help North Korea prevent the infection from penetrating the country,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday.
Reported by Jieun Kim, Myungchul Lee, and Albert Hong for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.