North Korea said on Friday that six people had died and 350,000 people had been treated for a fever that had “explosively” spread across the country, a day after it first acknowledged the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19).
The true scale is unclear, but the spread of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) could be devastating in a country with a crippled health care system and an unvaccinated malnourished population. North Korea, which likely does not have enough COVID-19 tests and other medical equipment, said it does not know the case of the mass fever.
The official North Korean Central News Agency said that 350,000 people have developed a fever since late April, 162,200 people have recovered. She added that 18,000 people who showed symptoms of fever were discovered on Thursday alone, and 187,800 people were isolated for treatment.
One of the six people who died was confirmed to have the omicron variant, but it was not immediately clear how many diseases contracted the COVID-19 virus, the Korean Central News Agency said.
North Korea imposed a nationwide lockdown on Thursday after admitting the outbreak of COVID-19 for the first time in the epidemic. Those reports said that tests conducted on an unspecified number of people came back positive for the Omicron variant.
The spread of the virus was likely accelerated by a massive military parade in Pyongyang on April 25, in which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took center stage and displayed the most powerful missiles of his military nuclear program in front of tens of thousands.
The pace of the fever’s spread suggests the crisis could last for months, possibly until 2023, causing major disruption in the poorly equipped country, said Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea.
Some experts say North Korea’s initial announcement indicates its willingness to receive foreign aid. They have previously recruited the vaccines offered by the UN-backed COVAX Distribution Program, possibly because they have international monitoring requirements.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said South Korea is ready to provide medical and other aid to North Korea based on humanitarian considerations.
The Korean Central News Agency said Kim was briefed on the fever when he visited the emergency epidemic prevention headquarters on Thursday and criticized officials for failing to prevent a “weak spot in the epidemic prevention system.”
He said that the spread of the fever centered on the capital, Pyongyang, and neighboring regions, and stressed the importance of isolating all units of work, production and housing from each other while providing all the comforts for residents during the closure.
“It is the most important challenge and supreme task facing our party to reverse the situation of the immediate public health crisis at an early date, restore the stability of epidemic prevention and protect the health and well-being of our people,” Kim was quoted by the Korean Central News Agency as saying.
North Korea’s claim to an exemplary record of keeping the virus at bay for two and a half years has been widely questioned. But South Korean officials said North Korea has likely avoided a large-scale outbreak so far, in part because it has put in place strict virus controls almost from the start of the epidemic.
Describing its campaign against the coronavirus as a matter of “national presence,” North Korea has imposed severe restrictions on cross-border traffic and trade, and is believed to have ordered troops to shoot any intruders crossing its border as soon as they saw it.
The border closure has further hit an economy already battered by decades of mismanagement and crippling US-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile programme, sending Kim into perhaps the most difficult moment in his rule since taking power in 2011.
Hours after confirming the outbreak on Thursday, North Korea fired three short-range ballistic missiles toward the sea, South Korea and Japan said, in what may be a show of force after Kim publicly acknowledged the outbreak. This was North Korea’s 16th round of missile launches this year.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the United States supports international aid efforts but does not plan to share vaccine supplies with North Korea.
“We continue to support international efforts in providing vital humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable North Koreans, and this is of course a broader part of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that continues to exploit its own citizens by not accepting this type of aid,” Psaki said Thursday in Washington, referring to North Korea by its name. Official, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
It’s not just vaccines. It is also a package of humanitarian aid that can greatly help the people and the country and instead divert resources to build their illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”
Associated Press reporter Darlene Superville contributed to this report.