SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea on Saturday reported 21 new deaths and 174,440 more people with fever symptoms as the country struggles to slow the spread of COVID-19 over its unvaccinated population.
The new deaths and cases, which were from Friday, increased the total number to 27 deaths and 524,440 diseases amid a rapid spread of fever since the end of April. North Korea said 243,630 people had recovered and 280,810 remained in quarantine. State media did not specify how many of the fever cases and deaths were confirmed as COVID-19 infections.
The country introduced what it described as maximum preventive measures, Thursday after confirms its first COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. It had previously held for more than two years to a very dubious claim of a perfect record that keeps out the virus that has spread to almost everywhere in the world.
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, during a meeting of the ruling party’s Politburo on Saturday, described the outbreak as a historic “major upheaval” and called for unity between the government and the people to stabilize the outbreak as soon as possible.
Officials during the meeting mainly discussed ways to quickly distribute medical supplies that the country has released from its emergency reserves, Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency said. In a report presented to the Politburo, the Nordic emergency epidemic office blamed most of the deaths for “errors such as excessive drug use, without scientific medical treatment.”
Kim, who said he donated some of his private medicine supplies to help the antivirus campaign, expressed optimism that the country could bring the outbreak under control, saying most transfers take place in communities that are isolated from each other and not spreads from region to region.
He urged officials to learn from the successful pandemic reactions from other nations and chose an example in China, the Nordic region’s largest ally.
However, China has been under pressure to change its so-called “zero-COVID” strategy that has brought big cities to a standstill as it struggles to slow down the fast-moving omicron variant.
North Korea has since Thursday imposed measures aimed at restricting the movement of people and supplies between cities and counties, but state media’s descriptions of the measures indicate that people are not confined to their homes.
Experts say a lack of control over the spread of COVID-19 could have devastating consequences in North Korea given the country’s poor health system, and that its 26 million people are largely unvaccinated.
Tests of virus samples collected Sunday from an unspecified number of people with fever in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, confirmed they were infected with the omicron variant, state media said. The country has so far officially confirmed that one death is associated with an omicron infection.
In the absence of vaccines, antiviral pills, intensive care units and other important health tools to fight the virus, North Korea’s pandemic response will mostly be about isolating people with symptoms at designated shelters, experts say.
North Korea does not have the technological and other resources to impose extreme lockdowns such as China, which has shut down entire cities and restricted residents to their homes, nor can it afford to do so at the risk of triggering further shocks to a fragile economy. said North Korea. Hong Min, analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.
Even when he called for stronger preventive measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, Kim also stressed that the country’s economic goals should be met, which is likely to mean that large groups will continue to congregate on agricultural, industrial and construction sites.
North Korea’s claim of a perfect record in keeping the virus out for 2 1/2 years was very dubious. But its extremely strict border closure, large-scale quarantines and propaganda that emphasized antivirus control as a matter of “national existence” may have averted a huge outbreak so far.
Experts are mixed about whether the Nordic countries’ announcement of the outbreak communicates a willingness to receive outside help.
The country had avoided millions of doses offered by the UN-funded COVAX distribution program, possibly due to concerns about international surveillance requirements associated with these shots.
North Korea has a higher tolerance for civilian ailments than most other nations, and some experts say the country could be willing to accept a certain level of fatalities to gain immunity through infection, instead of receiving vaccines and other outside help .
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 North has so far made no request for help. Relations between rival Koreas have deteriorated since 2019 following a derailment in the nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
Kim’s call for his officials to learn from China’s experience indicates that the Nordic region may soon request COVID-19-related medicines and test equipment from China, said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Friday that Beijing was ready to offer North Korea assistance, but said he had no information that such a request was made.
North Korea’s viral proliferation could have been accelerated after an estimated tens of thousands of civilians and troops were assembled into a massive military parade on April 25 in Pyongyangwhere Kim took the stage and showcased the most powerful missiles in his military nuclear program.
After maintaining one of the world’s strictest border closures for two years to protect its poor health system, North Korea had reopened rail freight traffic with China in January, apparently to ease the strain on the country’s economy. China confirmed closing the route last month as it fought COVID-19 outbreaks in border areas.
A few hours after North Korea acknowledged its first COVID-19 infections on Thursday, South Korea’s military discovered the test firing in the Nordic region three ballistic missiles in what appeared to be a defiant demonstration of strength.
Kim has been accelerating its weapons demonstrations in 2022, including the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile in almost five years. Experts say Kim’s brinkmanship is aimed at forcing Washington to accept the idea of the Nordic region as a nuclear power and negotiate a removal of crippling US-led sanctions and other concessions from a stronger position.
South Korean and US officials also say that the Nordic region may be preparing to carry out its first nuclear test since 2017, which they say could happen as early as this month.
Commercial satellite images from recent weeks indicate that North Korea has resumed construction of a long-dormant nuclear reactor at its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, in a possible move to increase fissile material production and expand its nuclear weapons stockpile, according to a published study. Friday by American scientists.
The completion of the 50-megawatt reactor could increase the country’s production of plutonium for bomb fuel by 10 times, says 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.
The researchers said it was difficult to estimate how quickly North Korea could complete the construction of the reactor.
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