South Korea Norht Korea Launch

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is seen on TV on March 9 after North Korea fired three unidentified projectiles off its east coast on Monday.

The coronavirus continues to spread internationally. By Tuesday afternoon, at least eight cases were confirmed in Virginia. Such a crisis demands a global response and shared knowledge as researchers seek answers. Truthful accounting of infection rates are necessary rather than secretive denials of a problem. Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly what’s going on in North Korea.

The hermit kingdom insists that it has not had a single recorded case of the coronavirus. Pyongyang’s official statement is: “The infectious disease did not flow into our country yet.” But North Korea shares borders with China—ground zero for COVID-19—and South Korea. Both of those nations have been struggling with the outbreak. China’s border with North Korea is nearly 900 miles long and extremely porous. But in the past few months, according to Reuters, North Korea has clamped it down and the Chinese have been banned from entry in an effort to keep the virus at bay. Residents who live near the border say they’ve received printed notices from Chinese authorities warning them to stay away from the boundary line or risk being shot.

The South Korea-based Daily NK newspaper, which reports on news events and human rights issues inside the reclusive North Korea, claims the virus is out of control and the regime is struggling to contain it. Reportedly, as many as 1,800 North Korean troops have fallen ill, more than 200 have died and thousands remain quarantined. Unknown numbers of civilians might be ill as well.

It’s quite probable that COVID-19 is rampant within the communist nation. Nearly 45% of North Koreans are undernourished. Chronic food security and malnutrition are widespread. The nation’s medical infrastructure is nearly nonexistent and the lack of access to clean water and sanitation are problems for millions. Poor physical health, no medical resources and a lack of basic hygiene leave people poorly equipped to fight off any infection.

Late last year, the Global Health Security (GHS) project released its first comprehensive assessment of global health security capabilities in 195 countries. The GHS index is a joint project led by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security working with the Nuclear Threat Initiative and The Economist Intelligence Unit to assess and help develop measurable changes in international health security and capabilities during outbreaks of globally infectious diseases.

According to the index, North Korea comes in almost dead last at 193rd; only Somalia and Equatorial Guinea rank lower. (The United States ranks No. 1). North Korea earns zeroes in terms of emergency preparedness and response planning in biosecurity, biosafety and medical countermeasures. It received zeroes in infection control, equipment availability and several other factors critical to handling a contagious disease outbreak. The nation has no ability to test individuals suspected of having COVID-19 and no way to care for those who fall ill.

Thomas Cynkin, vice president of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security in Washington, D.C., noted in a recent column for The Japan Times that North Korea’s actions thus far—essentially closing its borders with its main trading partner, China—will create a near stranglehold on an already precarious economy. He warns that as the nation shuts off contact with other countries, Pyongyang might feel “compelled to lash out internationally” to project strength and draw the attention of its people away from the drastic steps it is taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

We might be seeing that play out now. On March 1, North Korea fired two short range missiles off its coast. The action was met with immediate condemnation from Seoul, which issued this statement: “This kind of act by North Korea does not help efforts to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula. We once again urge the North to immediately stop it.”

That condemnation resulted in Pyongyang promising to take “momentous” action in retaliation. On Monday, it fired three short-range projectiles in protest. Analysts say the missile launches are only an act to bolster leader Kim Jong Un’s image with his own people before reaching out to South Korea and other nations for desperately needed medical and economic assistance. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, told The Associated Press that the virus “is likely exceeding North Korea’s public health capacity, so Kim Jong Un is playing a two-level game. At the domestic level, his regime claims to protect the people with drastic quarantine measures and military exercises” while seeking international assistance, but Pyongyang “remains obsessed with not appearing in an inferior position to Seoul.”

What a pity. Nothing will ever change in a nation where millions suffer even as its dictator tries to impress the world with nuclear capabilities rather than simply requesting help for his people.

Robin Beres is deputy opinions editor for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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