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North Koreans, who were already struggling, are now facing a cold snap, covid

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SEOUL – Winter in the northern reaches of North Korea, the inhospitable areas where those deemed “hostile” to the ruling Kim regime are left to fend for themselves are tough at the best of times.

Right now, in the two weeks in the traditional Asian calendar known as the “Major Cold” because it’s the most frigid of the year, is far from the best time.

It was the “hardest time of the year,” says Choi Song-juk, who is from North Korea’s Ryanggang province, on the border with China.

A relentless wave of cold and snow swept across Northeast Asia this week. The freezing temperatures and icy conditions have led to chaos in Japan and South Korea, grounding flights, blocking traffic and causing deaths.

China’s northernmost city recorded a temperature of minus -63.4 degrees (minus -53 degrees Celsius) this week, the coldest recorded in the country in modern times. Even in subtropical Taiwan, meteorologists have issued cold weather warnings.

The North Korean state’s meteorological service also issued warnings for extreme cold this week, describing the attack as “the most bitter cold snap in 23 years.” Temperatures in Pyongyang, the capital, were expected to drop minus 2 degrees, but in northern areas, such as Choi’s hometown, the mercury could drop to minus 22, North Korean state radio warned.

It called for “thorough measures in cold weather to prevent damage in agriculture, energy production, city management, transportation and other economic sectors,” and urged the public to take care of their health.

The arctic blast that hit East Asia this week has proved particularly challenging for North Korea, a country facing a complex humanitarian crisis, including chronic energy and food shortages.

These northern areas of North Korea – unlike Japan, South Korea or even northern China – do not have apartment buildings with electric heating. In Ryanggang and Hamgyong provinces on China’s northern border, rural homes rely on coal or wood underfloor heating. Many use plastic sheeting on their windows to try and insulate their homes from the bitter cold.

Widespread heating, food security and health care issues in North Korea are exacerbating the devastation of extreme weather, which meteorologists say is becoming more common in South Korea due to climate change.

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It is now even harder than usual to get information out of North Korea, as leader Kim Jong-un has kept the country under a three-year lockdown since the coronavirus outbreak in neighboring China.

Diplomats, aid workers and traders who usually move back and forth can no longer glimpse life in the world’s most closed state. Even the trickle of defectors has dried up.

Kim’s propaganda machine offers nothing but favorable insights. State television this week showed layered city residents celebrating the Lunar New Year holiday in scenic snow.

But such wintry conditions pose life-threatening hardships for people in the impoverished countryside, former residents say. “My hands and feet would freeze climbing the icy mountain to find wood,” said Choi, who escaped to South Korea in 2014. “I was so hungry and thirsty, and eating snow was sometimes the only option.”

Except for privileged citizens living in Pyongyang’s centrally heated homes, most North Koreans are “completely left to their own devices to keep themselves warm,” said Lee Sang-yong of Daily NK, a Seoul-based news service with North Korean informants. -Korea.

Those living in impoverished northern provinces such as Ryanggang and Hamgyong must find their own coal or wood, which is in short supply because the extreme cold has increased demand, Lee said.

In addition, North Korean authorities have recently stepped up their crackdown on roofing, making it difficult for poor residents to get firewood, according to a report from Radio Free Asia, which has sources in North Korea, on Wednesday.

Decades of subsistence living have left the mountains bare as North Koreans increasingly seek wood for heating and cooking, prompting the Kim regime to promote reforestation of mountain regions.

“The crackdown exacerbates the shortage of firewood for residents,” a resident of Ryanggang told RFA. “Many of us are shivering in this severe cold of -40 degrees Celsius.”

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The pandemic only adds to North Korea’s winter challenges. In the absence of medical resources for treatment or vaccination against covid, the country has largely relied on strict social distancing restrictions and border closures to combat the contagious disease.

North Korea is not disclosing the number of coronavirus cases, but state media continues to report on anti-virus measures in place across the country.

Citing heightened risks of respiratory disease in winter, Korea’s Central News Agency said this week that “emergency response to epidemics is the country’s top priority.”

North Korean authorities have ordered a five-day lockdown of the capital until Sunday, according to an official order, citing the spread of an unspecified respiratory illness. The Russian embassy in Pyongyang posted a photo of the order on its Facebook page.

Omicron variants of the coronavirus have been sweeping through China since restrictions were lifted last month, with authorities saying about 80 percent of the population has been infected during this surge.

Experts say North Korean authorities are exploiting covid restrictions to control people’s movement and justify a crackdown on illegal trade. Lee said that only “weights down” ordinary North Koreans. “This is a very harsh winter for them,” he said.

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