North Korea Announces ‘Explosive’ COVID-19 Outbreak

North Korea on Friday went public with its first “explosive” COVID-19 outbreak, reporting six fatalities and raising concerns about the hermit state’s defenses against the coronavirus after two years of claiming to have warded off infections.

According to the Korea Central News Agency, (KCNA), one of six victims had been tested positive for Omicron’s BA.2 subvariant.

Up to 187,000 North Koreans are now reportedly being “isolated and treated” after some 18,000 developed a fever on Thursday. KCNA adds that a fever “whose cause couldn’t be identified explosively spread” since late April, appearing in some 350,000 people. It says that leader Kim Jong Un visited “the state emergency epidemic prevention headquarters” on May 12 and “learned about the nationwide spread of COVID-19.”

Leif-Eric Easley is associate professor of international Studies at Ewha Womans University, Seoul. He believes that the situation could be even worse than reported. “People desperately need coronavirus vaccines and therapeutics,” Easley tells TIME.

According to Yonhap, South Korea will donate COVID-19 vaccins to North Korea. “We will hold discussions with the North Korean side about details” a spokesperson for President Yoon Suk-yeol told the agency.

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North Korea had been among the few countries that hadn’t reported COVID-19 cases until today. The country’s borders are now closed as a result of the pandemic that began in 2020.

The country is believed to have not given COVID-19 shots to its 25million inhabitants, after having rejected COVID-19 vaccines through COVAX. In February, the WHO-led program scaled back North Korea’s allotment after millions of doses were rejected last year.

“There is no evidence that North Korea has access to enough vaccines to protect its population from COVID-19. Yet it has rejected millions of doses of AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines offered by the WHO-led COVAX program, which requires transparent distribution and monitoring,” says Amnesty International’s East Asia researcher Boram Jang.

North Korea is bordered by China. China has been trying to eliminate infections through its strict zero COVID policy. Beijing on Thursday said it was “ready to go all out” to assist Pyongyang in combating the outbreak.

North Korea’s COVID-19 might be the key to its downfall

North Korea could be hit hard by a COVID-19 epidemic. North Korea has a poor health system. A 2021 index that assessed the preparedness for an epidemic or pandemic in 195 countries placed North Korea 193rd. The apparent lack of vaccination programs makes it more susceptible to serious infections and death.

Jang says that if North Korea continues to pursue an isolationist strategy, it “could cost many lives” and would be an “unconscionable dereliction” of its duty to citizens. “It is vital that the North Korean government acts now to protect the right to health of one of the world’s populations with lowest access to vaccines and one of the most fragile health systems.”

According to the KCNA Kim has criticized Pyongyang’s spread of the disease, highlighting a weak point in the epidemic control system. He has also ordered a swift lockdown and isolation of infected cases, but added that residents should be “provided with every convenience” in their attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19, the agency says.

North Korea’s two-year border closure has battered its economy, on top of the U.S.-led sanctions over the nuclear-armed country’s ballistic missile tests.

However, the hermit country may now be more open to outside assistance. Ahn Kyung-su of Seoul-based research center said North Korea’s announcement signals its need for international support and that it needs COVID-19 medication more than vaccines. “This is because drugs are much simpler in terms of transportation, distribution and management personnel than vaccines.”

But according to Easley, engagement with Pyongyang won’t be easy. Says the international studies professor: “Even international humanitarian assistance has to navigate Pyongyang’s political pathologies.”

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