North Korea reports 6 deaths after admitting COVID-19 outbreak

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Six people have died and 350,000 have been treated for a fever that has spread “explosively” across North Korea, state media said Friday, a day after the country acknowledged an outbreak of the virus. COVID-19 for the first time in the pandemic.

North Korea’s Central News Agency said that of the 350,000 people who developed a fever since the end of April, 162,200 have recovered. He said 18,000 people were recently found with fever symptoms on Thursday alone, and 187,800 are being isolated for treatment.

One of the six people who died was infected with the omicron variant, KCNA said. But it was not immediately clear how many of the total illnesses were COVID-19.

North Korea imposed a lockdown on Thursday after acknowledging its first cases of COVID-19. Those reports said an unspecified number of people tested positive for the omicron variant.

It is unusual for isolated North Korea to admit to the outbreak of any infectious disease, let alone one as threatening as COVID-19, as it is intensely proud and sensitive to outside perceptions of its self-described “socialist utopia.”

While North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has occasionally been candid about his worsening economy and other problems, he has repeatedly expressed confidence in the response to the pandemic and was not seen wearing a mask in public until Thursday.

State television showed Kim wearing a mask as he entered what the broadcast described as the country’s headquarters for its pandemic response, which appeared to be Pyongyang’s iconic Koryo Hotel. He took off his mask and smoked a cigarette while talking to officials.

KCNA said Kim criticized officials for failing to prevent “a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system.” He said the outbreak was centered in the capital Pyongyang, stressing that all work and residential units should be isolated from each other, while residents should have all the comforts during the lockdown.

The spread of the virus may have been accelerated by a massive military parade on April 25, where Kim delivered a speech and displayed his army and weaponry in front of tens of thousands of people.

Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, said the pace of the fever’s spread suggests the crisis could last for months and possibly into 2023, causing major disruption in the poorly equipped country.

According to the latest figures from the World Health Organization, North Korea reported to the UN agency that it tested 64,207 people for COVID-19 in 2020 as of March 22 this year, a small number that may indicate tests. insufficient for a population of 26 million.

North Korea also lacks vaccines, antiviral pills for COVID-19 and likely has too few intensive care units to treat severe cases, which may cause higher death rates than other nations, experts say.

Last year, the North rejected millions of injections offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, including doses of AstraZeneca and Chinese Sinovac vaccines, possibly due to doubts about their effectiveness and unwillingness to agree to monitoring requirements. The country lacks the extreme cold storage systems required for mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna, which have shown higher rates of preventing infections, serious illness and deaths even against newer variants like omicron.

The office of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office on Tuesday, said his government is willing to provide medical supplies and looks forward to talking with North Korea about specific plans. He said that the North has not yet asked for help from him.

Cha Deok-cheol, a spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said Seoul does not immediately have an estimate of the number of vaccine doses it could offer North Korea.

Inter-Korean relations have soured over the past three years as larger nuclear talks remain stalled since they broke down over disagreements over US-led sanctions and the North’s disarmament steps.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Beijing was ready to offer help to North Korea, but said he had no information about such a request. Asked if China would evacuate its citizens from North Korea, Zhao said Beijing will closely monitor the situation and maintain communication with the North to ensure the health and safety of Chinese citizens there.

North Korea’s claim of a perfect record in keeping the virus at bay for two and a half years was widely questioned. But its extremely strict border closure, large-scale quarantines and propaganda emphasizing anti-virus checks as a matter of “national existence” may have prevented a major outbreak so far.

Hours after the outbreak was confirmed, North Korea launched three short-range ballistic missiles into the sea in an apparent show of force. It was North Korea’s 16th round of missile launches this year as they aim to pressure the United States into accepting the idea of ​​the country as a nuclear power. He is also eager to negotiate sanctions relief and other concessions from a position of strength.

There are also signs that North Korea is restoring tunnels at a nuclear test range that was last active in 2017 in possible preparations to resume nuclear tests, which US and South Korean officials say could happen as soon as this month.

Citing North Korea’s rejection of COVAX vaccines, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the United States supports international relief efforts but does not plan to share its vaccine supplies with North Korea.

“We continue to support international efforts to provide critical humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable North Koreans, and this is, of course, a broader part of the DPRK that continues to exploit its own citizens by not accepting this type of aid. Psaki said Thursday in Washington, using the initials of North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“It’s not just the vaccines. It is also a range of humanitarian assistance that could greatly help the people and the country and instead divert resources to build their illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”

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Associated Press writer Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.

——— This story corrects the name of a South Korean government spokesperson.

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