As we continue to monitor the outbreak of African swine fever (ASF) in South Korea, we would like to remind out readers that, as of the morning of 27 September 2019, more than 30,000 pigs in the nation had been deemed at risk of infection and 9 cases of the disease had been reported in less than two weeks. Although ASF does not pose any danger to humans, it can be deadly to animals. As a rule, the disease spreads via food remnants, or via contact with human or wild animal carriers of the ASF virus. There are currently no vaccines against it. And the only means of preventing the spread of African swine fever is to kill potentially infected pigs. At present, the slaughter is happening on almost a mass-scale.
Since the first outbreak of the disease (which claimed 1.17 million victims) in China in August 2018, ASF has spread to neighboring countries. Vietnam was the worst-hit with the death toll (DT) of 5 million pigs. Other nations affected by the outbreak included Laos (DT = 25,000), the Philippines (DT = 20,000) and even Mongolia (DT = 3,115).
On 30 September the results of the biggest inspection of South Korean pig farms (i.e. of 590,000 pigs), carried out in the Hongseong county of South Chungcheong Province, did not reveal any infections with the ASF virus. Earlier, information about 19 pig deaths had come from this region, but it was later found that they did not die from the disease. There were also reports that animals had been infected with African swine fever on a number of pig farms in Yangju in Gyeonggi Province over a period of three days, but they too turned out to be false.
However, later on the outbreak spread to previously unaffected areas. On 2 October the African swine fever virus was detected in two separate locations of Gyeonggi Province, thereby bringing the total number of areas affected to 11. On the same day, the military reported finding a body of a wild boar infected with the ASF virus. The corpse had been found in the demilitarized zone (DMZ), one and a half kilometers to the south of the inter-Korean border.
On 3 October, South Korea’s authorities confirmed two more cases of African swine fever in pigs. All the areas where the virus has been detected are in close proximity to the inter-Korean border. There have not been any confirmed cases in the south of the country thus far.
On 13 October, two more bodies of wild boars infected with the ASF virus were found 5 to 10 km from the DMZ border in Gangwon-do (Gangwon Province). The new development signifies that a new set of quarantine measures will need to be taken, as, despite the slaughter of domestic pigs, wild ones could potentially spread the virus to other parts of the country.
As of 20 October, 64,000 pigs (raised and kept on 69 farms) had been killed and buried, with the total number of slaughtered animals exceeding 150,000. Areas bordering the cities and counties where the ASF virus had been detected are currently being disinfected. And wild boars continue to be hunted. Since 15 October, 2,988 have been killed.
Assessing the effect of the outbreak on political games in South Korea begs the question “Are the problems plaguing the ROK as serious as those in the DPRK?”.
South Korean conservatives immediately began using the hunt for wild boars to their advantage, since this decision contradicts the government’s previous stance on means of minimizing the spread of the virus from North Korea. In his speech during an inspection of governmental agencies, Jeong Kyeong-doo, the Minister of National Defense of South Korea, said that the security lockdown in the border region would ensure that not a single wild boar could get through. Minister of Environment Cho Myung-Rae also stated that the ASF virus might have spread by other means, for example, via contaminated waters from North Korea or by other wild animals.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that Typhoon Mitag hit the Korean peninsula, thus possibly damaging some of the barriers in place. According to lawmaker Ha Tae-kyung of the Bareunmirae Party five operations are currently underway to repair the damaged areas.
Naturally, all of these developments breed rumors about what is happening in the DPRK. After all, the outbreak of African swine fever occurred in the ROK approximately 4 months after North Korea had informed the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) about its first confirmed case of the disease (as a result of which 22 animals were killed) on a farm not far from its border with China. And now the assumption is that the virus has continued to spread since the first news about the outbreak broke. On 30 May, the DPRK reported that the ASF virus had been detected in its territory, but since then there have been no further news. North Korean media outlets have not been covering this issue, and it is difficult to make any definitive statements about it in the absence of information directly from the source.
To be on the safe side, ROK’s news outlets began to entertain the possibility that Kim Jong Un’s “reclusive kingdom” was hiding a “hog apocalypse from the world”. Apparently, “unofficial reports indicated the disease was spreading out of control”. Citing ROK’s National Intelligence Service, Lee Hye-hoon, the Chairman of the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee, stated that “African swine fever had spread to almost all areas of North Korea”.
Obviously, defectors from all walks of life could not keep silent about these latest developments. Cho Chunghi, who had fled the DPRK in 2011 after “spending a decade working for the government’s animal disease control program” there, said that “African swine fever would worsen hunger and malnutrition”. He elaborated on this by stating that, firstly, many North Koreans raised “pigs to earn money to buy rice”. And secondly, due to sanctions in place, pork accounted for about 80% of DPRK’s protein consumption.
Ahn Chan-il, a former North Korean soldier who defected in 1979 and now heads the World Institute for North Korea Studies, went even further to say that an “apocalypse” was in the making. He added: “The fact that North Korea has reported the outbreak to an international organization suggests the situation is probably getting out of their hands”.
And it is dangerous indeed. According to Kwon Tae-jin, director at the Center for North East Asian Agricultural Studies in Seoul, there are disease prevention and quarantine systems in North Korea, but they do not work well enough. He also said that “the biggest danger was from pigs raised in households in the DPRK, where sanitary conditions” were worse and disease risk was more difficult to monitor than in government enterprises. The Wall Street Journal labelled the situation “a messy example of how the failure of the two Koreas to collaborate on everyday issues” could bring problems beyond diplomatic deadlock. However, all the blame was still laid at Pyongyang’s door since it apparently ignored repeated offers of help from Seoul. Still Jeong Hyun-kyu, “a swine researcher on a government task force combating swine fever” thinks that, before the start of the outbreak in South Korea, a live wild boar could not have reached the ROK. In his opinion, infected pig bodies might have crossed the border by river (as they followed the current south), or the disease could have been spread by rodents or insects.
Be that as it may, on 22 October, the OIE demanded that the DPRK provide official data on the spread of African swine fever within its borders. According to Voice of America, the situation with regards to the ASF virus is serious in the countries neighboring North Korea. And all the nations where there have been more than one case of African swine fever need to cooperate with its neighbors in order to take all the necessary measures to prevent any further spread of the disease. Thus North and South Korea ought to work together on this issue.
It is yet unclear how the DPRK will respond to this recommendation, but for now, according to data from Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corporation, pork prices in South Korea were on average 7.9% higher in the second half of September in comparison to those in the first.
The situation has not reached apocalyptic proportions as yet. But if the disease spreads to the south of the country because of bureaucratic wranglings, this may contribute to the worsening of the political and economic crisis in South Korea.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.