Coronavirus could kill as many as three million people in North Korea and Kim Jong-un cares little about an impending humanitarian disaster, a defector has warned.

Kim Myong has suggested the Covid-19 death toll in the secretive country could rival that of a four-year famine known as the Arduous March.

Kim Jong-un's regime insists it is free of coronavirus - a claim rejected by the international community - despite tens of thousands of cases in neighbouring China, where the outbreak began, and South Korea.

There are unverified claims that North Korea executed its first confirmed coronavirus patient by firing squad and a report in March claimed Covid-19 may have killed about 200 soldiers during a major outbreak.

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Kim Jong-un oversees a military drill in this image released by state media on Friday

North Korea claims it has no confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2, but has said that it continues testing and has more than 500 people in quarantine, according to the World Health Organisation.

Observers believe its healthcare system is woefully unprepared for the virus and have expressed fears that an outbreak could be devastating, given the state of hospitals, malnutrition and economic sanctions.

Mr Myong has dismissed the Kim regime's claims as propaganda and "absurd lies" as North Korea continues to carry out missile test launches and military drills.

A health worker takes a woman's temperature in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea

In an article for the US-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, he wrote that the true number of infections and deaths "exceeds imagination".

He added: “North Korea’s healthcare system is fragile and precarious. The people of North Korea have long been affected by chronic malnutrition, poor health and weak immunity.

“Consequently, it would be no exaggeration to state that North Korea is far more vulnerable to Covid-19 than any other country in the world.

Mortar sub-units of the North Korean Army fire during a drill
A news broadcast shows Covid-19 coverage near the central railway station in Pyongyang

"Perhaps it would not be unreasonable to assume that North Korea has been more affected than any other country in the world."

Mr Myong warned that North Korea's death toll could match that of the Arduous March, also known as the march of Suffering, a mass starvation between 1994 and 1998.

He lived in Pyongyang at the time and suffered from food shortages.

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It is estimated that about three million people died during the famine brought on by an economic crisis, government mismanagement, drought and flooding, according to the international community.

Food insecurity remains a major problem in the country.

In 2019, the United Nations estimated that more than 10 million North Koreans were suffering from severe food insecurity.

Health officials disinfect a corridor at the Pyongchon District People's Hospital in Pyongyang
A trolley bus is disinfected amid fears over the spread of the novel coronavirus in Pyongyang

In response to the coronavirus outbreak, which began in neighbouring China, North Korea closed its borders and ordered all foreigners in the country, mostly diplomats, to self-isolate for weeks.

It has also ramped up its propaganda campaign with reports praising Kim's leadership.

There have been unverified claims of cities being locked down and test kits being on short supply.

Mr Myong speculated that North Korea has been reluctant to tell the truth about coronavirus within its borders because it is trying to protect relations with China, a country it depends on heavily amid international sanctions, and avoid embarrassing President Xi Jinping.

Kim Jong-un oversaw a military drill carried out at an undisclosed location
A woman wears a face mask at Pyongyang International Airport as North Korea denies an outbreak

He suggested Kim is hiding the truth about the outbreak - like his father, Kim jong-il, concealed the horrors of the famine while living a life of luxury - and deceiving his own people because he fears North Koreans will turn against him if they know the real toll due to a lack of proper testing and treatment.

Mr Myong added: "To Kim Jong-un, letting hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of North Koreans die of the disease like worthless slaves would not be an issue. 

"To him, watching so many people die would be less painful than a finger prick spilling one droplet of his own blood."

A third reason, Mr Myong added, for keeping the outbreak a secret is Kim's desire to continue provoking the US with missile tests and his hope that his military actions will be excused if the truth is concealed.

Foreign embassy employees leave Pyongyang after being forced to quarantine for weeks
The NHS has provided guidance for those fearful of Coronavirus
North Korea insists that it has had no confirmed cases of coronavirus

Mr Myong has called on the international community to pressure North Korea into sharing transparent information and accepting any necessary foreign assistance to save lives.

Kim, meanwhile, has overseen another military drill, state media reported on Friday.

It came as the country's parliament, the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), prepares to gather for its annual meeting despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

Almost 700 deputies from across North Korea normally attend the session.

But many observers consider the SPA to be politically useless.

They were waiting for state media coverage of the event to determine whether Kim and his officials were taking any precautions against the highly contagious virus.

C Harrison Kim, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and an author of a book on life in postwar North Korea, told Al Jazeera: "There are several superficial but highly interesting aspects [of the SPA gathering] that we'll be paying attention to.

"We will have to see how the coronavirus pandemic forces North Korea to change its rituals.

"There are probably going to be fewer people there, and they might cut down on these public group ceremonies in general."