SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea on Saturday reported 21 new deaths and 174,440 more people with fever symptoms as the country scrambles to slow the spread of COVID-19 across its unvaccinated population.
In the midst of a rapidly spreading fever epidemic since April, 27 people died and 524.440 were infected. North Korea claimed that 263k633 people were now healthy and another 288,810 remain in quarantine. State media didn’t specify how many of the fever cases and deaths were confirmed as COVID-19 infections.
On Thursday, after receiving confirmation of its first COVID-19 case since the beginning of the pandemic, the country implemented what it termed maximum preventive measures. To a doubtful claim, it had been in place for over two years. This was to prevent the spread of the virus to almost every part of the globe.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a ruling party Politburo meeting Saturday described the outbreak as a historically “great upheaval” and called for unity between the government and people to stabilize the outbreak as quickly as possible.
Officials during the meeting mainly discussed ways to swiftly distribute medical supplies the country has released from its emergency reserves, Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency said. In a report presented to the Politburo, the North’s emergency epidemic office blamed most of the deaths on “mistakes like overmuch taking of drugs, bereft of scientific medical treatment.”
Kim stated that he donated some of his own medicine supplies for the anti-virus campaign. Kim expressed optimism about the possibility that the country would be able to control the spread of the disease. Kim also said that they were donating their private medical supplies.
He called for officials to take lessons from the successful pandemic responses of other nations and picked an example in China, the North’s major ally.
China, however, has been facing pressure to change its so-called “zero-COVID” strategy that has brought major cities to a standstill as it struggles to slow the fast-moving omicron variant.
North Korea since Thursday has imposed steps aimed at restricting the movement of people and supplies between cities and counties, but state media’s descriptions of the measures indicate people aren’t being confined to their homes.
Experts say a failure to control the spread of COVID-19 could have devastating consequences in North Korea, considering the country’s poor health care system and that its 26 million people are largely unvaccinated.
Tests of virus samples collected Sunday from an unspecified number of people with fevers in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, confirmed they were infected with the omicron variant, state media said. One death has been confirmed by the country as being caused by an omicron virus infection.
Lacking vaccines, antiviral pills, intensive care units and other major health tools to fight the virus, North Korea’s pandemic response will be mostly about isolating people with symptoms at designated shelters, experts say.
North Korea doesn’t have technological and other resources to impose extreme lockdowns like China, which has shut down entire cities and confined residents to their homes, nor could it afford to do so at the risk of unleashing further shock on a fragile economy, said Hong Min, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.
Even as he called for stronger preventive measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, Kim has also stressed that the country’s economic goals should be met, which likely means huge groups will continue to gather at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.
North Korea’s claim of a perfect record in keeping out the virus for 2 1/2 years was widely doubted. But its extremely strict border closure, large-scale quarantines and propaganda that stressed anti-virus controls as a matter of “national existence” may have staved off a huge outbreak until now.
Experts are mixed on whether the North’s announcement of the outbreak communicates a willingness to receive outside help.
Because of international monitoring obligations attached to these shots, the country has refused millions of doses from U.N.-backed COVAX distribution programs.
North Korea is more open to civilian suffering than many other countries. Experts believe that the country may be prepared to take a few deaths to obtain immunity from infection.
South Korea’s new conservative government led by President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office on Tuesday, has offered to send vaccines and other medical supplies to North Korea, but Seoul officials say the North has so far made no request for help. Following a halt in the nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang, relations between rival Koreas has deteriorated.
However, Kim’s call for his officials to learn from China’s experience indicates that the North could soon request COVID-19-related medicine and testing equipment from China, said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.
Zhao Lijian from China’s Foreign Ministry stated Friday that Beijing would offer North Korea assistance, but he did not know of any request.
North Korea’s viral spread could have been accelerated after an estimated tens of thousands of civilians and troops gathered for a massive military parade April 25 in Pyongyang, where Kim took center stage and showcased the most powerful missiles of his military nuclear program.
After maintaining one of the world’s strictest border closures for two years to shield its poor health care system, North Korea had reopened railroad freight traffic with China in January apparently to ease the strain on its economy. China closed the route in January as the country battled COVID-19 epidemics along its border.
Hours after the North acknowledged its first COVID-19 infections on Thursday, South Korea’s military detected the North test-firing three ballistic missiles in what appeared to be a defiant show of strength.
Kim has been accelerating his weapons demonstrations in 2022, including the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile in nearly five years. Experts say Kim’s brinkmanship is aimed at forcing Washington to accept the idea of the North as a nuclear power and negotiating a removal of crippling U.S.-led sanctions and other concessions from a stronger position.
South Korean officials and U.S. officials claim the North may be preparing to carry out its first nuclear testing since 2017. This could take place as soon as next month.
A study by U.S. scientists released on Friday shows that commercial satellite images show North Korea having resumed construction of a long-defunct nuclear reactor at its main nuclear nuclear complex in Yongbyon. It is possible this move was to enhance fissile materials production and increase its arsenal nuclear weapons.
The completion of the 50-megawatt reactor could increase the country’s production of plutonium for bomb fuel by 10-fold, said the report co-authored by Jeffrey Lewis, Joshua Pollack and David Schmerler at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
Researchers said that it was hard to predict how fast North Korea would build the reactor.
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