Who is Ryu Yong Chol?
- Ryu Yong Chol has become the face of North Korea's COVID-19 response
- Despite his growing public presence, little is known about Ryu
- North Korea has reported more than 2 million cases since late-April
It has been a week since North Korea reported it's first suspected COVID-19 case in what has turned out to be a full-blown outbreak that has infected nearly 10% of the country's population. In the short time that has passed since then, a hitherto little-known North Korean official, Ryu Yong Chol, has become the face of the country's epidemic response.
Described as cases of "fever" by authorities and state media, suspected COVID-19 cases have reportedly skyrocketed in North Korea since late-April, with the current total case count having crossed 2 million.
With the isolated country struggling to contain the epidemic, Ryu has been a consistent public figure, providing daily updates on the number of new cases and deaths at 9.30am local time each day.
A likely senior official in Pyonygang's emergency epidemic prevention headquarters that appears to have been recently set up in response to the outbreak, Ryu chairs daily meetings on the country's epidemic response.
Taking a page out of the playbook of his American counterpart Dr Anthony Fauci, Ryu also holds daily briefings, albeit without questions from reporters.
Ryu also regularly instructs North Koreans in ways to help contain the epidemic: "We should strengthen efforts to control and isolate every and each infected person without exception so as to thoroughly eliminate any spaces where the infectious disease can spread," the official said on Friday, urging care so that "loopholes" could be avoided.
Despite his growing public presence, however, little is known about the face of North Korea's epidemic response.
According to Reuters, a director-general at the health ministry with the same name had, in 2017, accused South Korea of "plotting a biochemical terror attack" against Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, accusations that Seoul denied.
The publication also reported that while South Korea confirmed that Ryu had indeed held such a post, it was not immediately clear whether it was the same person who made the accusation.
North Korea has reported 2,241,610 cases of "fever" thus far among its 25 million people, and 65 people have died. With infections growing quickly, experts fear that the country lacks the medical infrastructure and vaccines required to contain the outbreak.
Although Pyongyang has rejected offers of assistance from its enemies - the US and South Korea - thus far, a renewed offer for help may arrive when US President Joe Biden visits his South Korean counterpart Yoon Suk-yeol on Friday as the two leaders are expected to discuss help for North Korea.