October 14, 2019

North Korea's African swine fever outbreak might be worse than expected

North Korea may be covering up the severity of an African swine fever outbreak in the country as the disease continues to affect Eastern Asia, Bloomberg reported.


Only one outbreak was confirmed this year in North Korea. But, the movement of feral pigs could have further complicate the ASF situation in the secretive nation. Five wild boars were found dead in or near border areas separating both South Korea and North Korea this month before being tested positive for the viral haemorrhagic disease, South Korean officials said.


The finding hints at the unrestricted movement of animals across the 4km-wide buffer zone between both nations. There is also a possibility that ASF had spread from North Korea into its southern neigbour as unofficial reports claimed the disease was not successfully controlled.


South Korea has deployed helicopters to disinfect parts of the 250km-long border barrier, near which more than a dozen outbreaks have occurred on farms since the virus was first reported there a month ago.


Since October 11, the country has also put down 154,653 pigs at 94 farms, the Agriculture Ministry revealed.


According to the chairwoman of the South Korean National Assembly's intelligence committee, ASF has hit most areas in the North, with pigs in the western province of North Pyongan killed off. The virus had killed 22 hogs in May on a cooperative farm about 260km north of Pyongyang, near the border with China, North Korea's Agriculture Ministry said in a May 30 report to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).


There is no follow-up reports since then, and the highly restricted North Korean media provides little clue to the outbreak. 


The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has no information beyond the report received by the OIE, said Dr. Wantanee Kalpravidh, the United Nations agency's regional manager of the Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Diseases. The FAO is awaiting approval to send a delegate to North Korea, she said in a text message.


North Korea's weak food security could be jeopardised even more by ASF. In fact, several families in the country raise pigs to earn money for buying rice.


In addition, local crop production is forecast to be smaller than usual for the rest of 2019 due to below-average rainfall and low water supplies for irrigation, the FAO said last month.


About 40% of the population, or 10.1 million people, are estimated to be food-insecure and in urgent need of food assistance, according to results from a UN assessment conducted in April.


"Pork accounts for about 80% of North Korea's protein consumption and, with global sanctions taking place, it's going to be hard for the country to find an alternative protein source," said Cho Chung Hi, a North Korean deflector who now works as a researcher at Good Farmers, a Seoul-based non-governmental organisation that supports developing nations to generate profit through agricultural activities.


"The virus is extremely destructive as people are now unable to make money through raising pigs, while the country's economy is restrained."


Pigs at North Korea's state-owned collective farms are outnumbered by those raised at individual farms, a factor that only makes controlling an ASF spread more difficult. According to Cho, the country's response is also handicapped by its lack of experience in combating epidemics in animals. 


Additionally, the ASF situation in North Korea could impact the entire Korean peninsula, as well as posing re-entry risks to China and Russia.


Routine tests for the virus on wild boars were introduced before Pyongyang reported the outbreak, South Korea's Ministry of Environment said in a statement on October 9.


Now, streams and soil near the border are also being tested.


- Bloomberg