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Schools in North Korean province remain closed amid respiratory outbreak

A resurgence of a respiratory illness believed to be caused by coronavirus has caused some elementary schools and childcare facilities in North Korea to remain closed past April 1, which should have been the starting date of the new school year, residents in the country told Radio Free Asia.

RFA reported that in early March, at least five children in the northern province of Ryanggang had died of a respiratory disease that had symptoms similar to COVID-19. 

The province shuttered all daycares and schools and returned to an emergency quarantine posture  that had been in place nationwide during the worst of the pandemic. 

While middle and high schools will start as scheduled, for elementary schools and daycares, the lockdown – which was supposed to have lasted for only 10 days – is continuing into April.

When April 1 was drawing near, authorities decided to postpone the school year, a resident of the province told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“The main cause of infection circulating these days is called mycoplasma which is similar to coronavirus and is known to be fatal to children,” he said. 

Mycoplasma is a form of bacteria that can cause a type of mild pneumonia that has symptoms like sore throat, cough and fever, and can be treated with antibiotics. Though mycoplasma infections have symptoms that overlap with COVID-19, the latter is caused by a virus, and cannot be treated with antibiotics.

U.N. medicine

Furthermore, the resident said that North Korean medicine is ineffective and the disease must be treated with medicines supplied by the United Nations, which the government sells for profit.

“The U.N. medicines are so expensive that ordinary residents cannot even think of buying them,” he said. “Even if your child has a high fever and is sick, you can’t buy the U.N. medicines in the pharmacy, so you will end up letting your child go.”

Staff of the Pyongyang Primary School No. 4 clean stairwells in Pyongyang, North Korea June 30, 2021. (Cha Song Ho/AP)

According to the source, an antipyretic injection to reduce fever costs 15,000 won (US$1.76) – a huge sum for most North Koreans.

The resident said that for residents, it is maddening that the government is not taking a more active role in trying to cure those who have fallen ill, and have only postponed the school year.

“Since children have died because of their high fevers, the residents are raising their voices against the authorities urging them to treat infected patients with the U.N. medicine instead of selling it,” he said.

In 2020, North Korea waited until June 1 to start the school year due to the pandemic, then declared an early vacation in July as conditions worsened.

There is no telling when the daycare centers and elementary schools will reopen this year, another Ryanggang resident said on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“Today is supposed to be the first day of the new school year for students enrolling in school or entering a new grade,” she said. “Young students who graduated from kindergarten this year and should be entering elementary school for the first time are really disappointed.”

She said that many parents are shocked by the delay, and many think that the number of students affected by COVID-19 and mycoplasma must be high if they are taking such measures.

Translated by Claire S. Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.