At 9:30 a.m. every week this week, a soft-spoken official appeared on North Korean television to report fever and new deaths and to explain measures to stop North Korea’s first confirmed COVID-19 outbreak.
The lesser-known official, Ryu Young Chol, has become the face of the public in the isolated country’s war against the epidemic, the equivalent of US Covid-19 Czar Dr. Anthony Fawcett or Jeong Eun-kyung, director of the South Korean Immunity Agency.
For more than two years, sealing its borders, North Korea has not reported a single case of Kovid, which foreign skeptics have suggested was a reflection of its traditional state secrecy rather than the actual absence of the coronavirus.
Since confirming its first outbreak last week and declaring a state of emergency, North Korea has changed tactics. Many other countries seem to take a page from the playbook, revealing detailed information about the spread of the virus and giving advice on how to avoid it.
Ryu works for the state’s emergency epidemic prevention headquarters, KCNA reports, which appears to have been newly set up to deal with COVID-19.
Its South Korean counterpart, the North Korean agency, held daily briefings, chaired by Ryu, albeit without question from reporters.
Wearing a suit and wearing horn-rimmed glasses, Ryu shows conscientious and slightly unusual qualities on North Korea’s tightly regulated television, best known for the hysterics of its announcers and military commanders.
“We must intensify efforts to control and isolate every infected person without exception so that any areas where infectious diseases may spread can be thoroughly eradicated,” Ryu said on Friday, calling for “protection from leaks”.
Of North Korea’s 25 million people, 2,241,610 died of fever and 65 died. It lacks the ability to test and does not specify how many of these people have been infected with COVID-19.
Ryu is rarely known for his medical qualifications.
In a July 2017 state media report, a director general of the health ministry of the same name accused South Korea of plotting a “biochemical terrorist attack” against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. South Korea has denied the allegations.
An official from South Korea’s unification ministry, which handles North Korean affairs, said Ryu had previously held the post, although it was not clear if he was the person quoted in the report.
Yang Mu-jin, a professor at North Korean Studies University, said the apparent openness on Kovid-19 was consistent with Kim’s pressure to build a “normal state” by improving transparency and acknowledging flaws in North Korea’s new media strategy. Seoul
“He can encourage people to report symptoms and join efforts to control the outbreak, where public participation is key,” Young said.
“There is some publicity value, because the statistics are comparatively lower than those reported elsewhere,” Young said.
Another unification ministry official said North Korea may have learned from other countries and is releasing data and statistics as part of an effort to “consolidate all available means” in the wake of the outbreak.
Yang noted that the death toll appears to be significantly lower than elsewhere, adding that fewer deaths could be reported to close the political crisis.
“Political considerations may be needed to reveal the number of deaths as the increase in deaths is likely to arouse public fear and public sentiment,” he said.
(Except for the title, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and was published from a syndicated feed.)