North Korea insists that it has not confirmed a single case of Covid-19. But outside experts are skeptical, citing the country’s decrepit public health capabilities and the long border it shares with China, where the epidemic first erupted. More than 90 percent of the North’s external trade normally goes through its land and sea borders with China.

North Korea shut its borders with China in late January, as fear of the virus spread. As an added precaution, it has also deployed special forces troops to create “a buffer zone, one or two kilometers up on the Chinese border,” said Gen. Robert B. Abrams, commander of the American military in South Korea.

“They’ve got shoot-to-kill orders in place,” General Abrams said during an online conference on Thursday, organized by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This is fundamentally about preventing Covid from getting into North Korea.”

Given the North’s poor medical systems and its chronically malnourished population, “a very large outbreak could be devastating,” he said.

As United Nations sanctions have choked North Korea’s economy in recent years, illegal smuggling across the border with China has increasingly become a lifeline. But fear of Covid-19 has curbed smuggling as well as legal trade.

Covid-19 “has accelerated the effect of sanctions on North Korea,” General Abrams said.

North Korea’s trade with China has plummeted this year, according to official numbers. To make things worse, the North was hit by three typhoons in rapid succession that caused extensive damage to homes, farmland, roads, bridges and mines.

In a series of emergency meetings of the ruling Workers’ Party in recent weeks, the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has admitted that his five-year plan to rebuild the economy failed. But he has ordered the government to undertake recovery efforts without accepting outside aid and instructed the military to lead the recovery work.

Reporting was contributed by Kenneth Chang, Choe Sang-Hun, Emily Cochrane, Michael Gold, Sophie Hardach, Dan Levin, Patricia Mazzei, Richard C. Paddock, Saw Nang, Roni Caryn Rabin, Jim Tankersley, Kate Taylor and Noah Weiland.



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