STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Who would have thought that 2022 would be the year when North Korea first had COVID? The country claims to have found its first outbreak. It's imposing a nationwide lockdown. Up to now, that cloistered nation has insisted it was COVID-free. Experts doubt that, but what is certain is that North Korea is one of the few countries on Earth that has not even begun to vaccinate its population.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn is covering this from a safe distance in Seoul. Hey there, Anthony.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: Granting that it's hard to confirm anything in North Korea, what's known?
KUHN: Well, the official Korean Central News Agency says that authorities discovered an omicron variant in the capital, Pyongyang, on Sunday. The report had no information on the number of cases they found or how it got into the country, but authorities have ordered all cities and counties locked down. But North Korea just reportedly test-launched a ballistic missile into the sea. So clearly, not everything is locked down.
INSKEEP: OK. So the military is still going ahead with its work, but there's a lockdown for civilians. I'm just trying to get my brain around the idea that North Korea would have had no COVID cases up to now.
KUHN: Yeah. Well, at the beginning of the pandemic, they sealed the borders, they stopped all trade, and they kept testing a small percentage of the population and claimed that there were no positive cases among them. However, there have been reports that authorities sent patients with cold-like symptoms to quarantine centers.
Now, I spoke to a doctor named Choi Jong Hoon, and he was a neurologist in North Korea until he defected to South Korea about a decade ago. And he says a lot of those suspected patients in the quarantine centers probably had COVID. Let's hear what he had to say.
CHOI JONG HOON: (Speaking Korean).
KUHN: There would have been at least 30,000 cases at a minimum, he told me. And he says that's within the range of what the North Korean government is capable of controlling and monitoring, although the actual number would have been higher. And Choi's theory is that the North Koreans admitted this outbreak in order to deflect criticism of their cover-up and harsh crackdown before.
INSKEEP: Anthony, I would imagine that any number of nations would have been happy to send North Korea millions of doses of vaccines. Nobody wants North Korea to be a lab of viruses mutating. So why have they not vaccinated their population?
KUHN: Well, the global vaccine initiative called COVAX has offered them millions of AstraZeneca and Chinese Sinovac vaccines, but North Korea has refused all of them. And Dr. Choi says the reason is that they don't trust the Western-made ones, and they don't think the Chinese ones work.
INSKEEP: Well, what is the risk now with that unvaccinated population?
KUHN: Well, I think North Koreans can see from China next door that there's a limit to what even the strictest lockdowns can do to stop omicron. But Dr. Choi says that it's also partially that North Koreans see the threat of COVID differently. Let's hear what he told me.
CHOI: (Speaking Korean).
KUHN: He says North Korean people feel a lower level of threat from the coronavirus than we do because there are many other dangers. You can end up in a labor camp for something you said. You can get arrested just for watching a movie. And interestingly, the Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim Jong-un as saying that what's worse than the virus itself are unscientific fear, lack of faith and weak will. So he was basically confirming that how you think about the virus in North Korea can be riskier than the virus itself.
INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Always appreciate your insights, Anthony. Thanks.
KUHN: Thank you, Steve.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.