‘Keep the bodies secret’: Coronavirus spreads further
The North Korean capital of Pyongyang was supposed to stage a massive military parade on Saturday to spark its 72nd anniversary celebrating the founding of the country's armed forces.
Last year, the country's dictator Kim Jong-un presided over a grand procession displaying all of the hermit nation's new weapons, with an onslaught of soldiers marching in perfect step.
This year, nothing like that took place.
Local media reports, heavily controlled by Mr Kim and his ruling party, said the Workers' Party had been successful combating "severe and dangerous difficulties" but didn't mention the parade at all.
That sparked suspicion the coronavirus, which originated in mainland China and has spread to almost 30 countries worldwide, had reached the hermit nation.
After all, every country and territory within a 3000km radius of North Korea - except sparsely populated Mongolia - has confirmed at least one case.
Seoul-based website Daily NK, which reports on North Korea using sources from inside the hermit country, said five people had died in the critical northwestern city of Sinuiju, the largest Chinese city in the region and a key trading route between the two countries.
The news site said authorities had "ordered public health officials in Sinuiju to quickly dispose of the bodies and keep the deaths secret from the public".
According to South Korean media reports, the virus has spread to North Korea through illegal trading across the border.
"Several suspected coronavirus infections have occurred in North Korea even though it shut all its borders," wrote Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's biggest-selling newspaper. "The infections most likely spread through porous parts of the border with China that see plenty of smuggling and other clandestine traffic."
It noted the suspected cases occurred among those who "engaged in smuggling between the North and China".
North Korea sealed off its 141km border with China as well as its 17km border with Russia. It banned tourists from China late last month and cancelled all flights between Beijing and Pyongyang.
Health officials have been concerned about a coronavirus epidemic breaking out in North Korea.
The country already has a severe shortage of basic medicine and medical equipment. If the virus continues to spread, authorities in North Korea fear it could undermine Mr Kim's power, with most of his people already suffering through hunger and poverty.
Choi Jung-hoon, a North Korean defector who is now a research professor at Korea University's Public Policy Research Institute in Seoul, said the country's medical infrastructure was focused on the capital.
"In North Korea, priority is given to the leading members of the government in Pyongyang," he told VOA. "When there is an outbreak of an infectious disease in North Korea, only Pyongyang is completely protected."
He said the North Korean leader "does not take proper measures (to protect) North Korean residents who make their daily living by relying on these roads to travel to various regions, which places them in worse situations".
"North Korea's medical system is poor, as the world probably knows," Mr Choi said. "It does not have proper medical equipment, let alone reliable electricity or water supply facilities in hospitals and health centres."
According to the country's state media, tests have been ordered for everyone entering Pyongyang by road and for anyone who has travelled outside the country.
South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo reported that a woman had been diagnosed in Pyongyang and everyone she had come into contact with had been quarantined.
Despite this, North Korean officials and media continue to publicly deny any outbreak of the virus within its borders.
Song In-bom, a North Korean health official, appeared on the state-run Korean Central Television on Sunday evening and said there were still no cases of the virus but urged "civil awareness" to prevent its spread.
Mr Choi said while a coronavirus outbreak in North Korea was likely, authorities would continue trying to conceal them.
"Because North Korea tries to put up an image of having the best 'self-sufficient' medical science to treat and prevent infectious diseases through propaganda, the regime is reluctant to announce any outbreak publicly," he said.