General Robert B. Abrams, the highest ranking U.S. military officer in South Korea, told journalists on Friday that he was “fairly certain” that the global coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic had spread into North Korea despite Pyongyang having declared zero confirmed cases to date.
Abrams, who is the commander of United States Forces Korea, United Nations Command, and the U.S.-South Korea Combined Forces Command, made the comments shortly after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. North Korea had previously indicated that it views COVID-19 as an existential threat, with the country’s state media having described the challenge posed by the disease a threat to “national survival.”
Even so, official state media accounts have described the country’s mitigation and containment measures as totally effective. “Officials of the Party and power organs and working people’s organizations and those in the fields of public health and anti-epidemic control across the country have boosted the hygienic information service about the worldwide spread of COVID-19 and preventive and treatment measures among the people, so that they should never feel relieved for having no COVID-19 case in the DPRK,” one North Korean state media article noted on Friday.
“You’ve seen the public statements by North Korea,” Abrams said, speaking from the Pentagon in Virginia. “They claim that they have no COVID-19 cases.”
“It is a closed off nation so we can’t say emphatically that they have cases, but we’re fairly certain they do,” he added.
North Korea was one of the first countries to respond to the outbreak of COVID-19 in China by shutting down its borders, including its land border with China, which accounts for an overwhelming majority of the sanctions-hit nation’s international trade. In January and February, North Korea also significantly reduced its military training activities. Abrams remarked on this, noting that North Korea “didn’t fly an airplane for 24 days.”
“What I do know is that their armed forces had been fundamentally in a lockdown for about 30 days and only recently have they started routine training again,” Abrams continued. In recent weeks, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, surrounded by military officers in face masks, has overseen three major coastal artillery drills, two of which included a new, large-caliber close-range ballistic missile/multiple launch rocket system first seen last year.
In previous years in the Kim Jong Un era, March has reliably meant the start of major military exercises in North Korea, including exercises involving the country’s nuclear-capable ballistic missile forces. In 2017, for instance, North Korea carried out a major salvo launch of five extended range Scud missiles as a response to joint military exercises by the United States and South Korea.
Amid the COVID-19 crisis in South Korea, the United States and South Korea announced a suspension of their planned springtime joint military exercises last month.