Was Ipo Village really ground zero for N. Korea’s COVID outbreak?

covid, disease, coronavirus, kangwon province, wonsan, east coast, ipo village
FILE PHOTO: A stretch of the Pyongyang-Wonsan highway. (Daily NK)

In early June 2022, a man surnamed Choe, the chief of the military medical department of the Second Division of the First Corps – a military unit located in the eastern section of the front line with South Korea in Ipo Village – rushed to Wonsan in his work vehicle.

Choe had received a sudden message that members of an investigation committee of the State Emergency Epidemic Prevention Headquarters had arrived in Wonsan to hold an emergency meeting on quarantine activities in Kangwon Province. He had then rushed off after packing a bag with reports on COVID-19 cases in his division from the unit’s army hospital and unit quarantine stations, along with some basic toiletries.

North Korea officially declared in May 2022 that COVID-19 had entered the country. The government had completely shut down intercity and intercounty travel in the province after the country implemented its “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system.” As such, Choe and the other participants invited to the meeting found it odd that the central government would call an emergency face-to-face meeting.

The meeting, which began at 8 AM the next day, was attended by emergency quarantine officials from Kumgang County invited by the investigation committee. Choe attended as a representative of the medical department of the army unit stationed in the county.

At the start of the meeting, the Pyongyang officials said that the State Emergency Epidemic Prevention Headquarters “had been ordered by the Central Committee to determine with certainty how COVID-19 entered the country and to take countermeasures” and that they had come to Kangwon Province “to inform the local people of what they had learned in Pyongyang.”

The officials said they had concluded that the source of the COVID-19 infection was “filth [enemy materials] and leaflets flown in from South Korea, where defectors’ garbage intentionally carried the COVID-19 virus.” They claimed several residents of Ipo Village had visited Pyongyang after coming into contact with the items.

In short, the officials had identified Kumgang County’s Ipo Village as the starting point of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country.

Questionable government findings

Choe could not believe what he heard. Ipo Village was home to the Second Division of the First Corps, the same unit where he served as chief of the army medical department. Since he had been testing the officers, soldiers, and families of soldiers in each unit five to seven times a day, he had no idea how the Pyongyang officials had determined the location of the outbreak when even the local army medical officers and doctors were unaware of the spread of the disease.

The findings of the State Emergency Epidemic Prevention Headquarters Investigation Committee were kept secret, and the participants had little choice but to accept the central government’s conclusion that COVID-19 had entered the country through Ipo Village.

Not long thereafter, major North Korean media outlets, citing the findings of the State Emergency Epidemic Prevention Headquarters, reported on July 1 that an 18-year-old soldier surnamed Kim and a five-year-old kindergarten student surnamed Wi had tested positive for COVID-19 in the frontline community of Ipo Village, Kumgang County, after touching “alien things.”

In mid-July, the investigation committee of the State Emergency Epidemic Prevention Headquarters transferred two soldiers and one officer and his family members from their quarters in the Second Division, First Corps to a state-run quarantine facility. Choe was assigned to carry out the order.

Believing that it was wrong to take away people who had not even visited Pyongyang for the previous several months, Choe asked for an extra day to “question the patients by referring to more precise medical records.”

Choe’s request provoked the indignation of his superiors, who warned him that haggling over the decisions of the State Emergency Epidemic Prevention Headquarters Investigation Committee could result in immediate execution under martial law, which had been declared with the start of the “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system.” Eventually, Choe was sent to the government quarantine facility along with the others for disobeying an order from above.

In October of that year, Choe’s family in Kumgang County received a notice that he had died in the quarantine facility after contracting COVID-19, along with an envelope containing his ashes. Choe’s wife immediately fainted at the news. His family was evicted from Kumgang County a few weeks later.

Others who were quarantined with Choe never returned to Kumgang County. Even if Choe did die from COVID-19, it is unclear why the others vanished into thin air. Perhaps the authorities sacrificed people falsely accused of having the disease in an effort to blame the outbreak on South Korea.

Translated by David Black. Edited by Robert Lauler. 

Daily NK works with a network of sources who live in North Korea, China, and elsewhere. Their identities remain anonymous due to security concerns. More information about Daily NK’s reporting partner network and information-gathering activities can be found on our FAQ page here.  

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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