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Because Of Coronavirus North Korea Cuts Off China, Its Economic Lifeline


Coronavirus has many countries sealing their borders with China, and that includes China's already reclusive neighbor, North Korea, which has clamped down on trade with China, suspended international tourism and instituted weekslong quarantines for people arriving in the country. North Korea says they have had zero confirmed cases, but the country's also notorious for misleading both the international community and their own people. For more on this, we turn to Jenny Town. She closely follows North Korea. She's the managing editor of the site 38 North. She's in our studios in Washington. Thanks for coming in.

JENNY TOWN: Pleasure to be here.

GREENE: So what, if any, information is leaking out about coronavirus in North Korea right now?

TOWN: Well, there are some rumors that are floating around of cases of coronavirus. But they're very hard to corroborate because the symptoms are so similar to other diseases, like pneumonia, like the flu. And it is winter in North Korea as well, so these are common ailments during the winter and especially in a system that has insufficient medical resources and medicines to treat some of these diseases.

GREENE: Oh, so in addition to sort of being notorious for misleading, I mean, the other problem is the capacity North Korea has to deal with this. I mean, you have to be able to test for this virus, also treat the disease it causes, which is now being called COVID-19. I mean, what capacity does North Korea have in a health moment like this?

TOWN: Well, you know, their public health infrastructure really is lacking. And so some of the hospitals in Pyongyang have better facilities and might be able to do these tests. But as you've seen in China, for instance, the testing can take up to two days. They've been doing, like, CT tests in the meantime to see if at least there's pneumonia to treat. These kinds of medical facilities are not common in a lot of North Korean hospitals, especially outside of Pyongyang. And so it's really hard for them to be able to handle any kind of crisis like this, especially if it starts to escalate. And so their best weapon against this is to prevent it as much as possible - and they've really been stressing this throughout the country - is good hygiene, early detection, early testing but also really just trying to prevent it from getting there to begin with.

GREENE: So are they giving citizens good information? I mean, you say they're encouraging people to use good hygiene. Are you confident that the government is doing the best it can in terms of information to help people avoid this?

TOWN: They are certainly taking this seriously, and they know the ramifications if it gets there, how difficult it would be to actually treat it and control the spread. There are a lot of information campaigns going on domestically about coronavirus, about the severity of it, about the need for good hygiene. And there are different treatment centers and an especially quarantine centers that are being set up throughout the country if there are suspected cases of it. So, you know, it is something that they are putting out information campaigns and there are reports on Daily NK and others of incidences where people have gone to some of these information sessions and they actually have doctors at the information sessions talking about what's going on and urging the importance of prevention.

GREENE: You know, obviously, first and foremost, we've been following the possible impact on lives of this virus but, in addition, the economic impact around the world. I mean, we've talked about even the effect on Chinatowns in the United States. I wonder about the economic impact on North Korea. I mean, now sealing its border with China, trade with China - Chinese tourists are really economic lifelines for North Korea. Could this have an impact on the regime?

TOWN: This is going to have a huge economic toll on North Korea, and especially since we don't know how long this is going to last. So, you know, they've cut - as you said, they've cut off trade. But tourism is the big thing. This has been propping up the economy over the past year. And, you know, they just built, like, the Samjiyon city, there's new hot springs. And they've been working on building up the Wonsan beach resort. And so all of these things have really been geared towards Chinese tourism. And so every day that that border is closed and every day that they've cut down tourism, it has a huge economic impact and it's hard to see. I'm sure the regime now is recalculating some of their choices, especially on their external affairs.

GREENE: Jenny Town is managing editor for 38 North, also a fellow at the Stimson Center. Thanks so much for coming in.

TOWN: My pleasure. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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