Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, North Korea has repeatedly insisted it remains COVID-19 free. But new reports claim the regime is leaving virus victims to die in secret “quarantine camps.” 

This comes after leader Kim Jong Un thanked his country for having “not a single” COVID-19 case in a speech at the Oct. 10 military parade with thousands in attendance. 

Days later, new data from the World Health Organization showed North Korea recorded 5,368 “suspected” COVID-19 cases. North Korean officials say the numbers came as a result of “intensified surveillance,” according to WHO. 

Tim Peters, a Christian activist who runs Seoul-based nonprofit Helping Hands Korea, told the South China Morning Post that the sources have reported that patients are suffering at camps near the Chinese border.

“One of the more alarming pieces of information that has come our way is that the DPRK government is providing absolutely minimal or no food or medicine to those who are interred there,” Peters said. “So, it’s up to the families of the quarantined citizens to come to the edge of the camps and bring food to keep quarantined relatives alive along with whatever health-related aids that they can muster, whether it be purchased medicines sold in the jangmadang markets or even herbal home remedies gathered from mountainsides.”

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Peters added that sources say many of the people in the camps have already died, not only from the pandemic but also from starvation and related causes.

David Lee, a pastor who works with North Korean defectors in Seoul, also told the South China Post that refugees who kept in contact with relatives still in the country had reported cases of people with symptoms “being forced into isolation, or being boarded up in their homes without food or other support and left to die”.

In July, North Korea implemented increased lockdown measures which initially raised speculation that they had suspected cases, but even after reporting a possible first COVID-19 patient, North Korean officials insisted that the test was “inconclusive.” 

WHO officials report North Korea’s borders to remain closed, group gatherings are banned, masks are required in public and all educational institutions, including preschools, are on an extended summer break.