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Is North Korea hiding a major problem behind the outbreak of Covid-19?

Seoul, South Korea (CNN)Choi Jong Hoon read the latest officialCovid-19 { Smiled. 9} North Korea'sState Media Numbers: Less than 5 million cases of "fever" and only 73 dead. This is only a fraction of the death toll in all other countries of the world.

"North Koreans call them rubber band statistics," he said in favor of Pyongyang's flexibility to the truth. "It's hard to know even North Korea's numbers," he said.

He talks to an authority. Hee-seop Choi has been a doctor in North Korea for over 10 years, specializing in infectious diseases before fleeing his home country in 2011. He began to die after the North Korean city of Jun Jin, where he worked, reported "cold and flu-like symptoms."

Doctors like Hee-seop Choi could only personally suspect that it was due to SARS. Officially, the infection was zero because North Korea did not have the ability to test for the disease. Its neighbor, China, reported more than 5,000 cases and hundreds of deaths.

Hee-seop Choi also remembers dealing with the 2006 national measles outbreak, armed with a thermometer alone. And in the 2009 flu epidemic, "more people died than during SARS."-The situation was exacerbated by a serious drug shortage. Explain that in the previous epidemics

, there was no incentive for local civil servants to move from home to home to accurately count incidents. They didn't have masks or gloves and thought the stats would be massaged by the administration accordingly. That need.

He believes that he hasn't changed much since he left, and his history is at least rhyming, if not exactly repeated.

What North Korea is hiding.

As with past outbreaks of illness in North Korea, one of the biggest concerns surrounding the outbreak of Covid in North Korea is the tendency of North Korean secrecy to determine its severity. It makes it difficult to measure accurately.

International NGOs and most foreign embassies have been away from the country for a long time and are inaccessible due to the tightly closed borders, explaining North Korean defectors like Hee-seop Choi. It is becoming more and more important.

That Pyongyang has dealt with the occurrence of, even if the accuracy of its statement wassince it facedskepticism. Many were surprised at Pyongyang's decision to admit in May. Kim Jong Un described this outbreak as the "greatest turmoil" that has hit the country so far. Two months later, after millions of suspicious cases occurred, he claimed"brilliant success".

The incredibly low official death toll reported by the country inevitably raises suspicion that Pyongyang is trying to hide a bigger problem.

"I have some questions," South Korea's Minister of Unification Kwon Young-se pointed out last week, and the story told by North Korean state media contrasts with experiences in other parts of the world. Pointed out.

A new Covid variant, cholera.

Initially, the greatest fear was that the outbreak of unvaccinated malnourished people receiving primitive medical care was devastating.

North Korea's UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has heard unconfirmed reports of the deaths of the elderly and malnourished children, but at this point the scale of the outbreak has been raised. He said it was impossible to know.

"At least in my position, I can't contrast this horror we had about Covid's catastrophic consequences and its current situation in early 2020 (North Korea).

There is also concern that unchecked infections through a population of about 25 million in North Korea could lead to the emergence of new, perhaps more virulent variants.

Key B, an American neurosurgeon who visited North Korea and trained in collaboration with North Korean responders until the pandemic began, Dr. Park North Korea does not seem to want to share information, saying that "it is not good for them (and) for the rest of the world."

"We need to share information about all sorts of new changes in the nature of the virus, such as mutations," he said.

"We need to be aware of the fact that high replication can lead to new variants. The only way to detect it is to share information with each other."

In June, North Korea stated that it was experiencing an unidentified outbreak of intestinal disease in South Hwanghae, about 75 miles (120 km) south of the capital Pyongyang.

At the very least, this announcement showed the country's vulnerability to outbreaks of disease and the shortage of medicines.

Park believes that North Korea is probably dealing with typhoid or cholera outbreaks.

"In places like North Korea, the incidence of infectious diseases is expected to be high. In fact, diarrheal disease is the biggest murderer for children under the age of five."

The light of hope.

One of the hopes for the park was the country's ability to rapidly vaccinate the population, as demonstrated by the 2006 National Measles Vaccination Program.

"The first cycle averaged 1 million injections per day, followed by the second cycle in late 2007, which averaged more than 3 million injections per day. "It was," Park said.

"Based on these numbers, the entire population can be vaccinated in the first jab for at least 8 days if all conditions are correct."

However, Optimistic views are alleviated by the hesitation of countries, sometimes referred to as "hermit countries," to accept external aid.

"They are sociable because of their rarity," Park said. "They struggled to supply the hospital with some of what we take for granted," he recalls working in the country until the surgeon was dull and unusable with equipment such as scalpels. He said it would be reused.

All offers of assistance from the United Nations, the United States, South Korea, etc. have been ignored.

However, some aid has penetrated the country from China. According to customs data, North Korea imported more than 10 million masks, 1,000 ventilators, and more than 2,000 kilograms of unspecified vaccines from January to April.

Gavi, a global vaccine alliance, said last month that it understood that North Korea had accepted the Covid vaccine from China and started taking doses.

A Gavi spokesman said North Korea "has not yet submitted a formal request for vaccine support to COVAX, but is ready to help if they do." Told to.

The isolation of Covid patients in the country is highlighted by a recent attempt by a group of North Korean defector activists to send medicines across the demilitarized zone (the de facto border between North Korea and South Korea). rice field.

Fighters to liberate North Korea sent a large balloon carrying medicines such as Tylenol and Vitamin C in June and several balloons carrying dissident leaflets in late April. Stated.

These balloon flights violate Korean law and are not recommended. "I understand the sentiment of these organizations, but I think they should be refrained," the Minister of Unification told reporters.

Hunger and the second "intense march"

On the other hand, illness is the biggest problem facing North Koreans, whether it is Covid or not. It may not be.

One North Korean defector, 44, who lives in South Korea, said he was contacted by a family member in the north shortly after the outbreak was reported. On the contrary, when it comes to Covid, they were most worried about her-a reflection of Pyongyang's considerable publicity.

"They said they were worried about me because they reported that many people in South Korea had died in Covid," she said. "They weren't too worried about the virus."

But what her family was very worried about was the lack of food.

"They told me that the food situation was worse than the Ardus March in the 1990s. I'm very worried about how difficult things were (at that time)."

An enthusiastic march refers to a period of catastrophic famine when the North Korean economy was hit by the collapse of the Soviet Union and ended the flow of aid to the country.

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands, or 10% of the country's population, have starved to death. Some estimates suggest that the death toll is even higher.

Asylum seekers never asked their families if anyone was dying of starvation, as they never talked about politics during rare contacts with their families. It is very likely that the authorities are listening. She asked CNN not to reveal her identity in case her family faced retaliation.

However, UN Special Rapporteur Kintana said the dangers were so real that the Kim dynasty and others involved in North Korea said, "North Korea's hunger poses a serious risk. Basically understand that. "

Whether Kim could listen is another matter.

State television said North Korean leaders toured pharmacies, ordered the military to stabilize medicines, and donated some of the private medicines to the fight against unidentified unconfirmed last month. I am reporting. Intestinal outbreak.

For Choi Hee-seop, who fled North Korea in 2011, such an image should be expected when the truth is treated like a rubber band. It's a show, nothing more, he said.

"North Korean authorities are not struggling, North Korean citizens are struggling. It would be great if we could survive, but if we die there is nothing we can do."