July 5, 2023
SEOUL – North Korean state media reports suggest that the country has lifted its COVID-19 mask mandate across the country, effective from this month.
The state-run Korean Central Television, primarily catering to North Korean audiences, began broadcasting news showing people working at factories and going about their daily lives mask-free on Sunday.
The Rodong Sinmun, an organ of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, also began featuring photographs of unmasked North Korean people on Monday.
Six individuals were seen donning masks at the Pyongyang Cornstarch Factory in the Sunday edition of the Rodong Sinmun.
But the Rodong Sinmun on Monday published a photo of over 100 maskless young people gathered at an indoor event in North Hamgyong Province, which borders China.
In the Tuesday edition, eight mask-free individuals were seen gathering at the North Hamgyong Provincial Publications Bureau.
Exceptions to the mask-free gatherings were noted, as medical staff at Kim Man Yu Hospital and farmers spraying agricultural pesticides were seen putting on masks in the photos released by the newspaper on Tuesday.
But the Kim Jong-un regime has not made any public announcement on a masking policy change through state media channels.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry on Tuesday said it is presumed that North Korea has lifted the requirement for mask-wearing based on recent reports from state media.
“There appears to be a practical need to relax the restriction, given that North Korea has implemented draconian preventive COVID-19 measures for around 3 1/2 years,” a senior official, who wished to remain anonymous, said during a closed-door briefing.
The Unification Ministry maintains a cautious stance regarding whether the lifting of the mask mandate in North Korea is temporary or permanent.
But the ministry noted that North Korea’s policy shift coincides with indications of a gradual opening of its borders, which had been completely closed since January 2020, as well as its participation in an international sports event.
North Korea resumed the operation of freight trucks between the Chinese city of Hunchun and Wonjong-ri in the North Korean city of Rason in January this year, following China’s border reopening. In June, the road connecting the town of Nanping in Jilin province to Musan County in North Hamgyong Province was reopened.
North Korea has also announced its intention to participate in the upcoming Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, scheduled for September. This marks a notable development in their engagement with international sporting events since the outbreak of COVID-19.
Radio Free Asia, a US government-funded radio broadcaster, reported on Monday that North Korea’s State Emergency Epidemic Prevention Headquarters had notified the country about the decision to lift the mask-wearing requirement nationwide, effective from July 1. RFA cited multiple anonymous sources from within North Korea.
But RFA also said that the lifting of the mask mandate is considered a “temporary measure” aimed at preventing the spread of eye and skin diseases that can be caused by wearing masks during hot summers.
North Korea has reintroduced mask mandates, after a period of removing it, to prevent a possible “twindemic” of the seasonal flu and COVID-19 during the winter.
In August 2022, the country dropped the mask-wearing obligations after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un publicly declared victory over COVID-19. State media showed North Korean people without masks until September of that year.
But in October, North Korean media began releasing photos and videos depicting people putting on masks, following Kim’s call for mask-wearing in his policy speech from November onward.