North Korea Still Claims No Coronavirus Infections Ahead of Major Regime Gathering

North Korea maintains it has recorded no COVID-19 coronavirus cases as Pyongyang prepares for a major regime conference next month where dictator Kim Jong Un is expected to set out his foreign and domestic policy direction to thousands of party members.

The secretive Northern regime has said throughout the pandemic that the virus—which has killed more than 1.7 million people worldwide and infected in excess of 77 million—has not taken hold within its borders, despite skepticism from public health experts and North Korea watchers.

The World Health Organization said Tuesday that North Korea has now conducted 10,960 coronavirus tests and found zero positive cases. This includes 791 people tested from November 27 to December 3, and another 766 from December 3 to December 10.

Pyongyang has been forcibly quarantining anyone suspected of infection. As of December 3, the WHO said a total of 33,223 people have been released from quarantine.

The regime began closing off the country's borders in January as outbreaks appeared in bordering China and South Korea. The inter-Korean border is heavily militarized and near impassable, but the northern border with China is porous and a key source of imports and income for the impoverished country.

Nonetheless, Pyongyang severely restricted the movement of people and goods across the border, slashing imports from China by some 96 percent in March 2020 compared with March 2019.

It was even reported that Kim had left Pyongyang to shelter from the virus at the exclusive east coast seaside resort of Wonsan. The dictator disappeared from view for several weeks earlier this year, prompting speculation he had died or was otherwise incapacitated. American intelligence officials suggested he was in Wonsan to avoid exposure to the coronavirus pandemic.

For all Pyongyang's grand claims of success, there have been reports of outbreaks within the country. In March, the South Korea-based Daily NK website suggested that at least 1,800 North Korean soldiers had succumbed to the virus, with thousands more in quarantine having been exposed.

The North is now enhancing its anti-virus measures ahead of next month's 8th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea, the first such gathering in five years and one the regime cannot afford to be disrupted.

The event will also coincide with President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, presenting Kim the opportunity to either provoke the incoming administration—for example with major weapon tests or other announcements—or open the door to dialogue with the new president.

Rodong Sinmun—the official newspaper of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea—said it was "crucial" for readers to ensure they are "absolutely obeying" the anti-virus measures, thereby "guarding" the success of the coming convention, according to a report by The Korea Times.

The regime has introduced an "80-day campaign" to achieve its goals in time for the convention. There has been speculation that the virus might prompt a delay to the event, but for now state media is still celebrating Pyongyang's apparent anti-virus success.

North Koreans amid coronavirus in Pyongyang event
In a photo taken on December 17, 2020, people walk past North Korean flags as they visit the statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang, North Korea. KIM WON JIN/AFP via Getty Images/Getty