North Korean soldiers spread COVID-19 during April 25 military parade

A massive military parade in North Korea has been identified as a COVID-19 super-spreader event, after several servicemen who marched in it tested positive for the virus, sources in the country told RFA.

Held on April 25 to commemorate the guerilla operation  that started 90 years ago and grew into the country’s military, the parade brought together about 20,000 soldiers. At the time, North Korea was still claiming that it was 100% “virus free.” This week, Pyongyang finally confirmed its first cases of COVID-19 and at least one death from the disease.

The country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has since declared a “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system” is in effect. 

Several soldiers stationed as border guards in the border city of Sinuiju, which lies across the Yalu River from China, began exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 at the beginning of this month, a border security official in the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“They had high fevers and acute respiratory symptoms … and after testing by the health authorities, it was confirmed that they were infected with the Omicron variant,” the source said.

“Most of the ones who tested positive are officers and soldiers who took part in the military parade …  on April 25. The health authorities reported the incident to the national emergency quarantine command, who in turn sent it in as a No. 1 report,” he said, referring to communications of the highest level, sent across the desk Kim Jong Un.

The revelation that the border guards could have contracted the virus at the parade and may have spread it to others upon their return led authorities in North Pyongan to declare a state of emergency.

“As a result, the border area has been further sealed up and traffic between the border guard units has been suspended,” the source said.

“Soldiers in each battalion, company and platoon cannot enter or exit the barracks, and movement restrictions are in place to prevent even a single solder from joining or leaving a unit. They are even prohibiting private conversations between soldiers within the same unit,” he said.

Another border security official, in nearby Uiju county, told RFA that soldiers there have been ordered to wear gas masks to prevent the virus from spreading.

“No one is allowed to go outside the unit barracks except the soldiers on duty in outposts who work in shifts,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“The number of confirmed cases among the border guard soldiers stationed in Uiju County has been increasing since early this month,” he said. “Most of the sick soldiers took part in the military parade to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army in Pyongyang on April 25th.”

If the soldiers indeed caught the virus during the parade, then it could have spread to all branches of the military in every part of the country, the second source said.

“The military parade mobilized a large number of personnel. Not only the border guards, but also officers and soldiers selected from the army and marines, navy, and air force across the country participated. Therefore, it should be considered that the coronavirus has spread to every military base everywhere,” the second source said.

“The authorities quickly … started up the maximum emergency quarantine system nationwide and began locking everything down,” he said. “But it is already too late.”

Sources told RFA that people are angry an event purely for propaganda purposes may be the source widespread illness.

According to a North Korean state media report on Friday, there are currently 187,800 people in quarantine in North Korea, and six people have died after showing COVID-19 symptoms. One of the dead was confirmed to be infected by the omicron variant of COVID-19.

Translated by Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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