North Korea has lifted COVID-19 travel restrictions nationwide, a sign the government may soon claim victory over the coronavirus pandemic, RFA has learned.
After two years of denying the virus had penetrated its closed borders, North Korea in May acknowledged COVID had begun to spread among participants of a large-scale military parade the previous month and declared a “maximum emergency” to fight the disease.
As part of its response, the government restricted movement between provinces and prohibited large gatherings. But now, after a partial lifting of the travel ban in late May, North Korea ended the limitations completely on June 12, a source from the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“Residents are able to travel to other provinces and even to the capital city, Pyongyang,” the source said. “The new order from the National Emergency Quarantine Command was given to residents of each neighborhood in Pohang district.”
Each neighborhood watch unit held meetings to explain the policy change to residents, the source said.
“They have been unable to travel outside the provincial borders with only the partial lifting of restrictions, so they welcome the news,” he said. “It is especially great news for merchants who rely on long-distance travel between provinces for their businesses.
“But even if the restrictions are completely ended, there is still a separate procedure that requires travelers to carry a COVID-19 test certificate issued by the quarantine command. We can get a travel pass only if we have the test certificate,” he said.
North Korea requires passes for travel between provinces even under normal circumstances.
Residents with mobile phones can access test certificates through a smartphone app, a resident of the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA. Others must travel to receive a paper copy.
“In rural areas such as Pakchon county, you have to visit the town quarantine center, which is miles away, to get a COVID-19 test certificate,” the second source said. “If a resident who wants to get a test certificate does not have a mobile phone, it is inconvenient.”
But she agreed that most residents are happy the restrictions are ending.
“Now they hope that the residents will have their livelihoods restored as soon as possible, but also by lifting the blockade of the border with China,” she said.
After briefly restarting rail freight shipments from China earlier this year, new outbreaks in China forced Beijing and Pyongyang to suspend trade again. Aside from the short respite, trade has been suspended since the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020, with disastrous effects on the North Korean economy.
The first source said that not all residents were overjoyed at the lifted restrictions, believing that the government had an underlying and unsaid motive.
“There are speculations that restrictions were lifted in order to mobilize the residents,” the first source said, referring to the government practice of forcing residents to provide free labor for construction, farming and other government projects.
“The COVID-19 lockdown restricted mobilizations on national construction projects and on rice planting duties,” he said.
Nevertheless, the government has been saying that it is the leadership of Kim Jong Un that has eradicated the coronavirus, the second source said.
Sources told RFA that North Korean traders and their Chinese counterparts are preparing to resume trade quickly once the Sino-Korean border reopens. They anticipate that cross-border trade will resume once coronavirus case numbers subside.
German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported Monday, citing North Korea experts and South Korean government sources, that North Korean authorities were preparing to declare victory over COVID-19 and give the credit to Kim Jong Un.
The North Korean government has only reported a handful of confirmed COVID-19 cases, but it has been tracking fever symptoms since the beginning of the maximum emergency. According to data published by the state-run Korea Central News Agency, more than 4.67 million people have come down with fever, at least 99.4 percent of whom have made full recoveries.
Translated by Claire Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.