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Schools close as pandemic rages in North Korea

As COVID-19 cases dramatically increase in North Korea’s military academies and secondary schools, the government has ordered students to begin remote learning, a daunting proposal in a land where most homes lack consistent supplies of electricity, much less online capabilities, sources in the country told RFA.

After more than two years of denying anyone in the country had contracted the coronavirus, North Korea finally announced its first cases and deaths last week, saying the disease had begun to spread among participants of a large-scale military parade in late April.

Sources in the capital Pyongyang told RFA’s Korean Service that confirmed cases were identified at two premier military academies in the city, both of which sent participants to the parade.

“At the beginning of last week there were only five university students who were confirmed to be infected with COVID-19 at Kim Jong Il University of Military Politics, but now that number has increased to dozens,” a source from the city told RFA Tuesday on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“The National Emergency Quarantine Command is conducting testing on university students who have symptoms like a severely high fever and shortness of breath. The students who test positive are immediately taken by ambulance to an isolation facility on the outskirts of Pyongyang,” he said.

The roughly 300 students from Kim Jong Il University who participated in the military parade are being quarantined at a single dormitory, according to the source.

“The students’ temperatures are being checked every day and they are given fever reducers when necessary,” said the source.

The authorities have closed areas surrounding the university and have ordered students to stay in their dormitories, even if they were not part of the military parade, the source said.

Authorities also tested parade participants from the city’s other major military university, Kim Il Sung Military University, another source in the city told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“A friend of mine who attends the university told me over the phone that more than 30 students that were classified as confirmed cases are being quarantined in isolation facilities at the outskirts of Pyongyang,” the second source said.

The 300 students from Kim Il Sung Military University who participated in the parade were also put in quarantine and are undergoing daily testing.

“The area around Kim Il Sung Military University is currently restricted. The school is closed and all students and faculty must not leave their dormitories until the end of the month,” the second source said.

Sources reported that the Central Committee is adequately supplying medicines and masks, including fever-reducing medicines, to students quarantined at both universities, where confirmed cases are rising.

The virus is affecting more than the military’s educational institutions. Authorities ordered all schools nationwide to begin distance learning.

“All students in Pyongyang have stopped going to school for in-person classes and are participating in distance learning at home,” an official from Pyongyang told RFA Tuesday on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.

“The frequent power outages and hiccups in the intranet network are causing difficulties, though.”

North Korea does not allow its citizens to connect to the global Internet, but the government operates an intranet where citizens fortunate to have devices capable of logging on are able to visit government-approved websites, all of which are hosted within the country.

“On May 2nd, there was a commotion when five out of 23 students of a class at a middle school in Moranbong district showed symptoms of high fever and coughing,” the official said.

“Other students in different classes showed the same symptoms of high fever and coughing, so the school immediately stopped classes and had all students return home under the direction of the National Emergency Quarantine Command,” he said.

On May 11th the Ministry of Education ordered all schools in the capital to stop in-person learning and change to distance learning, the official said.

“The [authorities] confirmed that the first middle school students to show symptoms were those who had been mobilized to participate in the parade as spectators in the crowd,” the source said.

The orders to begin distance learning were sent all over the country, but a resident who lives north of Pyongyang in South Pyongan province told RFA that few students have the resources necessary for remote classes.

“In general, only 2-3% of students have computers at home, so distance learning is meaningless, unless they are elite students of No. 1. high schools,” she said.

Aid reluctance

North Korean authorities have not responded to a South Korean proposal to cooperate in efforts to combat the pandemic. Observers said Pyongyang is unlikely to accept humanitarian aid from the international community, because it would be an admission of the country’s leader Kim Jong Un’s failure to control the virus.

North Korea may be unwilling to work closely with South Korea in particular because of a change in administration in Seoul earlier this month, Hong Min, the director of the North Korea Research Division at the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification, told RFA.

President Yoon Seok-yeol is expected to take a harder line in respect to North Korea than predecessor Moon Jae-in, who advocated engagement with the North.

Accepting help from other countries would be a bad look for Kim Jong Un, Ho Hong Kim of the Washington-based Institute for National Security Strategy told RFA.

“If North Korea immediately accepts the international community’s support, it would be like North Korea is admitting that the quarantine policies promoted by Kim Jong Un have failed,” he said. “So North Korea is probably trying to solve [the COVID-19 situation] on its own as much as possible.”

Kim said that North Korea may be capable of resolving some of its problems with help from China, including the provision of the emergency medicines North Korea desperately needs.

Between January and March, North Korea imported U.S. $183,000 worth of facemasks and $3 million worth of mask making materials, such as nonwoven fabrics and thermoplastics, data released Wednesday by the General Administration of Customs of China said.

Additionally, North Korea imported $795,000 worth of medical supplies, which is already 27 times the total for all of 2021.

According to data based on reports from North Korean state media published by 38 North, a site that provides analysis on the country, slightly less than 2 million people have been hit by outbreaks of fever, 63 of whom have died.

The country has only a handful of confirmed COVID-19 cases, which 38 North attributed to insufficient testing capabilities. Data published on the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center showed North Korea with only one confirmed COVID-19 case and six deaths as of Thursday evening.

Translated by Claire Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.