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COVID symptoms kill 5 North Korean children, schools and daycares shuttered

At least five North Korean children have died as a resurgence of a respiratory disease believed to be COVID-19 has caused authorities to enact quarantine procedures in Ryanggang province, residents told Radio Free Asia.

Residents living in the central northern province, which borders China, will have to wear masks and children will be confined to their homes, as schools and daycare centers have been temporarily shuttered. Sources said they were not sure if the lockdown applied outside of Ryanggang province.

“In early March, children showing symptoms of coronavirus died one after another in Paegam county,” a resident of the province, who requested anonymity for safety reasons, told RFA Korean. “The provincial party committee took emergency quarantine measures through the quarantine center.” 

According to the resident, quarantine workers that went house-to-house informed residents that three children in Paegam county died along with two more in nearby Kapsan county after exhibiting coronavirus-like symptoms. Another Ryanggang resident confirmed how the news was spread. 

‘Fever cases’

Residents, however, say they believe the situation could be much worse than reported, the first resident said.

For the first two-and-a-half years of the pandemic, North Korea claimed outwardly to be completely “virus free,” but in April 2022, Pyongyang admitted the virus had spread to all areas of the country and declared a state of “maximum emergency” the following month. 

During the entirety of the emergency, the government kept an official tally of “fever cases,” but its official total on global COVID-19 case tracking websites remained at or near zero. Experts said it was likely that cases could not be confirmed due to a lack of reliable testing capacity. 

Prior to the emergency, when patients in North Korean hospitals with COVID symptoms died, the hospital would quickly cremate the bodies so that they could not be tested for the disease, then attributed the deaths to other causes.

Though authorities acknowledge that five children have died, residents think that the response points to many more casualties, as daycare centers, kindergartens and schools will be closed for a 10-day period, and everyone will be required to wear masks or face punishment, the resident said.

He said that the quarantine center in the city of Hyesan ordered all children to be kept at home as much as possible because they are at greater risk than adults.

“Some are complaining about how children are supposed to be kept indoors when the adults have to do whatever it takes to make a living and find food,” the resident said. “On the other hand, some others agree that the temporary school closure is the best option in the absence of medicine.”

The quarantine center also promoted personal hygiene practices when it went house-to-house, the second Ryanggang resident told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely. 

“The quarantine workers warned of the seriousness of the situation and they also shared the news that several children infected with the coronavirus had died in Paegam and Kapsan counties,” she said. “There are many patients around me who are coughing and suffering from high fevers, similar to coronavirus symptoms.”

The second resident said things were just as bad now as they were during the pandemic. 

At that time, the border with China was closed and trade had been suspended, so there were shortages of everything. Additionally, lockdowns at home meant that people could not go out to earn money to support themselves.

“There is no money now, just like during the big outbreak,” she said. “And even if you have money it is difficult to get medicine.”

Translated by Claire S. Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong.