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North Korea builds state-of-the-art wards for privileged COVID patients

North Korea has set up “Special Treatment Divisions” in hospitals in the capital Pyongyang, where the country’s elite can go for treatment if they show symptoms of COVID-19, angering average citizens who lack access to similar care, sources told RFA.

For high-ranking officials of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, the divisions are up and running at the Pyongyang Medical University and Kim Man Yu hospitals, a resident of the city told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“A medical practitioner said that the number of the Party’s high-ranking officials who have been hospitalized due to confirmed COVID-19 at Pyongyang Medical University Hospital’s ‘Special Treatment Division’ is unknown, but there have been 10 or more officials who were quarantined with suspected COVID-19 symptoms,” the source said.

“The Central Committee organized the Special Treatment Divisions as special medical facilities for high-ranking officials when the pandemic crisis began [in 2020]. There were few hospitalized patients, but after the military parade in April, the hospitalizations of Central Committee officials increased significantly,” he said.

Though North Korea maintained that it was completely “virus free” for the first two years of the pandemic, Pyongyang finally acknowledged the presence of the virus within its borders in May 2022, saying that a large military parade at the end of April had spread the disease nationwide, and the government declared a maximum emergency.

The country’s archaic medical system is ill-equipped for the global pandemic, but the wealthy and elite live in an almost first-world bubble and their money or status can grant them top-notch care in the event they need it.

The facilities at the Special Treatment Divisions are state-of-the-art, the source in Pyongyang said.

“They are equipped with imported COVID-19 diagnostics and vaccines,” they said.

“If a fever patient is confirmed, he or she receives intensive treatment. The facility is equipped with various medicines and medical facilities such as IVs, oxygen cylinders, as well as oral vaccines. The patient receives three nutritious meals [a day] for a quick recovery.”

While fever cases do not appear to be in decline in Pyongyang, the government continues to claim victory over the disease, another resident of the city told RFA.

The government declared the capital as one of the areas of the country with no active cases as recently as Wednesday, according to 38 North, a website run by the Washington-based Stimson Center that monitors North Korean issues.

“Fever patients who show symptoms of COVID-19 continue to appear from among the residents and officials here in Pyongyang, but the Central Committee keeps repeating propaganda that it has won the battle,” the second source said.

“The residents are complaining that the authorities are only interested in special treatment for high-ranking officials … while ignoring treatment for ordinary residents,” he said. 

The second source confirmed that the Special Treatment Divisions for the high ranking officials of the Central Committee are operated out of the two hospitals mentioned by the first source. Meanwhile, senior officials of the city government go to Special Treatment Divisions in Pyongyang Hospitals #1 and #2, the second source said.

But the average citizen receives much more rudimentary treatment.

“For ordinary residents [exhibiting symptoms], the doctor assigned to their household will [only] check their body temperature each day. Unless they have a high fever, they will be designated as suspected COVID-19 patients and quarantined at home for two weeks,” the second source said.

“If they are suspected of having COVID-19 after a diagnosis, they must be isolated at a quarantine facility located on the outskirts of Pyongyang and the only treatment they get is two anti-fever pills each day,” he said. 

Meanwhile at the Special Treatment Centers, a team of doctors will check in on patients several times a day and provide medicines for specific side effects, the second source said. Once they are discharged, food is delivered to their homes, he said..

“The residents who see this are accusing the authorities of discrimination. They say, ‘Only the officials are actually people, and we are not even considered human,’” he said.

North Korea has so far only confirmed six cases of COVID-19 infection. Nearly 4.8 million people suffering from symptoms of the virus have been recorded as “fever” patients, 99.994% of whom have recovered, according to state media.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung O. Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.