North Korea Announces Release of All But Three Foreigners in Coronavirus Quarantine

North Korea has announced the release of all but three foreign citizens being held in quarantine over fears of the new coronavirus that has gripped nearly every nation in the world, with Pyongyang as one of the few governments still claiming zero instances.

North Korea's Central Emergency Anti-epidemic Headquarters has "taken tougher measure" to prevent any COVID-19 infections from taking hold in the country, "tightening control over people to let them obey unconditionally the instructions" laid out by authorities, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Friday. While cracking down, the headquarters also "correctly carried out to free those under medical observation, including foreigners, returnees from abroad and their contacts that had been quarantined" as part of these same stringent efforts.

"As of Mar. 19 all the foreigners in quarantine, except three, were freed as it has been confirmed that they had showed no abnormal symptoms during sufficient medical observation and checkup," according to KCNA.

"Over 1,500 people have been additionally freed from quarantine in South Phyongan Province and over 1,090 in North Phyongan Province," the outlet reported. "The same is true of other provinces."

The number of diagnosed COVID-19 cases around the world has exceeded 258,000, of which around 87,300 have recovered and more than 11,200 have died. North Korea has quarantined thousands of people, including hundreds of foreign nationals, but the ruling Korean Workers' Party newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported that, as of Friday, the "virus has not yet entered the country."

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North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the ground-breaking ceremony for the construction of the Pyongyang General Hospital on March 17. The young ruler has set out to shore up his country's defenses both against foreign foes and a new coronavirus sweeping the globe. Korean Central News Agency

North Korea's state-run media has continued to publish daily awareness campaigns of the country's efforts to prevent potential coronavirus infiltration, which authorities have attempted to curb with strict measures such as expelling foreign diplomats, enact tight border controls, and pushing a mass media campaign on useful hygiene and health practices. Nearly all individuals seen in press pictures are wearing sanitary masks with the exception of supreme leader Kim Jong Un himself.

Kim presided Wednesday over the ground-breaking ceremony over the construction of the Pyongyang General Hospital, which the young ruler said would symbolize the country's struggle under international sanctions over its nuclear weapons program and accusations of widespread human rights abuses.

"The Pyongyang General Hospital, which will rise up high in the center of the capital city under the manifold difficulties and hardships, will turn into a structure that demonstrates, as they are, the spirit of our country advancing vigorously towards the better future by frustrating cheerfully the mean sanctions and blockade of the hostile forces and the unchangeable situation of our revolution," Kim said.

The United States, however, has offered rare signals of willingness to support North Korea amid the coronavirus pandemic. On February 13, when the number of global confirmed cases stood just over 60,000—all but several hundred in China, the State Department issued a statement saying that the U.S. "is deeply concerned about the vulnerability of the North Korean people to a coronavirus outbreak."

"We strongly support and encourage the work of U.S. and international aid and health organizations to counter and contain the spread of coronavirus in the DPRK," it added, using an acronym for North Korea's official name. "The United States is ready and prepared to expeditiously facilitate the approval of assistance from these organizations."

State Department officials have echoed this message, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo too reiterated U.S. desire to support North Korea, along with fellow blacklisted Iran, during an interview Wednesday with Fox News host Sean Hannity.

"These are countries that we have deep differences with, and we are working diligently to create better conditions for their people, and part of that is to make sure that we're available to provide humanitarian assistance when we can," Pompeo said. "So we have offered to both the North Koreans as well as to the Iranian people humanitarian assistance, and we've offered to facilitate humanitarian assistance coming into those countries from U.N. organizations, from other countries as well. We'll keep doing that, it's the right thing to do in a time of crisis."

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Researchers analyze the ingredients of a new disinfectant product at the Ryongaksan Soap Factory in Pyongyang on March 19. North Korean has mobilized an anti-epidemic campaign utilizing mass media, tighter import controls and sweeping quarantines of suspected cases of COVID-19, which the country claims has not yet infiltrated its heavily-monitored borders. KIM WON JIN/AFP/Getty Images

In North Korea itself, however, assistance has reportedly been slow to come. According to a U.S. News World & Report article last week, Doctors Without Borders received a sanctions exemption from the United Nations but aid shipments were held up by tight border restrictions in neighboring China, where the illness was first observed. A Reuters report on Friday supported these claims, with aid workers expressing deep concerns that not enough was being done to support the closed-off country.

Michael J. Ryan, chief executive director of the World Health Organization's Health Emergencies Programme, told a daily press briefing earlier this month that "there are risks" in North Korea due to its proximity to heavily afflicted China and South Korea, but "we have no reports so far of issues there."

"We are supplying, making available supplies, as I think colleagues in China are as well, and are ready to provide technical assistance, like to any country," he said. "So it's very, very important that countries like DPRK are well-prepared, their systems are well-prepared, and we're ready to go in at any moment should there be reports of a case from the country."

In addition to bolstering anti-epidemic efforts, however, North Korea has also continued to flaunt its military defenses amid a total freeze in denuclearization-for-peace talks with rival South Korea and the U.S. Kim has overseen a series of several firepower drills involving artillery as well as the occasional launch of short-range missiles that violate U.N. Security Council resolutions not recognized by his government.

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A map provided by Statista shows the number of confirmed COVID-19 coronavirus disease cases around the world as of early March 20. The number has since exceeded 258,000, of which more than 11,200 have died and over 87,300 have recovered. Statista

The above map was provided by Statista