SEOUL • By official accounts, the pig contagion wreaking havoc across Eastern Asia has virtually skipped over North Korea, with a single outbreak reported there in May. But wayward feral pigs have stoked concern that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's reclusive state is hiding an African swine fever disaster.
Five wild boars were found dead in or near border areas separating the two countries this month before being tested positive for the viral haemorrhagic disease, officials in South Korea said. The finding reflects the freedom with which animals roam the 4km-wide buffer zone that divides the nations and creates an involuntary park and refuge for fauna.
It also hints at a spillover of the deadly virus from North Korea, where unofficial reports indicate that the disease is spreading out of control. 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.
African swine fever has spread to almost all areas of North Korea, and pigs in the western province of North Pyongan have been "wiped out", said Ms Lee Hye-hoon, who chairs the National Assembly's intelligence committee, citing South Korea's National Intelligence Service.
The virus 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, or OIE.
But since then, there have been no follow-up reports to the veterinary body, and scant coverage of the event in state media.
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 last Friday.
Widespread transmission of African swine fever, which is not known to harm humans but kills most pigs in a week, may put North Korea's food security in graver jeopardy. Crop production there is forecast to be smaller than usual for the rest of this year due to below-average rainfall and low water supplies for irrigation, the FAO said last month.
About 40 per cent 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.
African swine fever will worsen hunger and malnutrition, said Mr Cho Chung Hi, who fled North Korea in 2011 after spending a decade working for the government's animal disease control programme. Many North Korean households raise pigs to earn money to buy rice.
"Pork accounts for about 80 per cent 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 Mr Cho, 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 raised by individual farms outnumber those on state-owned and collective farms, which will make it almost impossible to halt the spread, especially given North Korea's inexperience with preventing and mitigating epidemics in animals, Mr Cho said.
This lack of capacity is a threat to the entire Korean peninsula, where the virus could become endemic, or generally present. That would make it more difficult to stamp out the disease through the usual steps of quarantining and culling diseased and vulnerable livestock. From there, it could also re-enter China and Russia.
South Korea has culled 154,653 pigs at 94 farms as of last Friday, according to the nation's Agriculture Ministry.
Routine tests for the virus on wild boars were introduced before Pyongyang reported the outbreak, the Ministry of Environment said in a statement last Wednesday. Now, streams and soil near the border are also being tested.