Daily NK, another Seoul-based website that relies on anonymous sources inside the North, reported last week that five people had died in hospitals in another northern province after suffering from fevers, and that people there had speculated that they died from the coronavirus.
As North Korea shut its ports and borders to foreign goods and summoned back officials who had been earning hard currency in China, quarantining them on the border, both commodity prices and exchange rates have begun rising in some northern towns, Daily NK said. North Korea’s military has also been smuggling in large quantities of South Korean face masks through China, it said.
Kim Seung-eun, a Christian pastor and human rights activist in South Korea who works with informants inside the North, said on Friday that he had not heard of any deaths from the coronavirus in the country.
He said the North Korean authorities had drastically stepped up border controls, even ordering guards to fire at those attempting to cross the border illegally. That draconian measure has made it impossible for groups like his to smuggle refugees out of North Korea, he said.
“North Korea has to take such an extreme step because their medical infrastructure is so bad that if an epidemic breaks out, it could run out of control,” Mr. Kim said.
The coronavirus emerged as North Korea seemed to be retreating from a period of relative openness, with the diplomacy between Kim Jong-un and President Trump having produced no concrete agreements on ending the North’s nuclear arms program or the international sanctions. In recent months, North Korea has opened resort towns in hopes of attracting Chinese visitors and badly needed tourist cash. But the coronavirus has halted that effort.
Mr. Kim, the pastor, said the prolonged border shutdown had already caused hardship for North Koreans who rely on trading and smuggling for a living. With goods smuggled from China getting more expensive, traders have begun hoarding commodities in the expectation of further price increases, he said.