SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korea has confirmed 15 more deaths and hundreds of thousands more patients with fever as it mobilizes more than a million health and other workers to try to suppress the country’s first COVID-19 outbreak, state media reported Sunday.
After maintaining a highly controversial claim to be free of coronavirus for more than two years, North Korea announced on Thursday that it had found its first COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began.
It has since said the fever has spread across the country “explosively” since late April, but has not revealed exactly how many COVID-19 cases it has found. Some experts say North Korea lacks the diagnostic kits needed to test a large number of suspected COVID-19 patients.
The additional deaths reported Sunday took the country’s reported fever-related deaths to 42. The official Korean Central News Agency also reported that an additional 296,180 people with fever had been counted, bringing the reported total to 820,620.
The outbreak has sparked concern about a humanitarian crisis in North Korea because most of the country’s 26 million people are believed to be unvaccinated against coronavirus, and its public health system has been in ruins for decades. Some experts say North Korea could suffer huge deaths if it does not immediately receive external shipments of vaccines, medicines and other medical supplies.
Since Thursday, North Korea has introduced a nationwide lockdown to fight the virus. Observers say it could further strain the country’s fragile economy, which has suffered in recent years due to sharply reduced foreign trade caused by pandemic-related border closures, punishing UN economic sanctions over its nuclear program and its own poor governance.
During a meeting on the outbreak on Saturday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un 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.
The KCNA said Sunday that more than 1.3 million people have been engaged in work to examine and treat sick people and increase public awareness of hygiene. It said everyone with fever and others with abnormal symptoms were quarantined and treated. The KCNA said the heightened pandemic response also includes the establishment of more quarantine facilities, emergency transportation of medical supplies to hospitals and increased disinfection efforts.
“All the provinces, cities and counties of the country have been completely locked up, and work units, production units and housing units have been closed to each other since the morning of May 12, and a rigorous and intensive survey of all people is being carried out,” the KCNA said.
Of those with symptoms, 496,030 have recovered, while 324,4550 as of Saturday are still receiving treatment, the KCNA reported, citing the country’s emergency epidemic prevention center.
State media say Kim and other senior North Korean officials are donating their private reserve medicine to support the country’s anti-pandemic fight. During Saturday’s meeting, Kim expressed optimism that the country could bring the outbreak under control, saying that most transmissions take place in communities that are isolated from each other and do not spread from region to region.
Despite the outbreak, Kim has ordered officials to proceed with planned economic, construction and other government projects, a proposal that authorities do not require people to stay at home. Hours after North Korea admitted its virus outbreak on Thursday, North Korea even fired ballistic missiles at sea in a continuation of its latest series of weapons tests.
The KCNA said Kim, accompanied by top deputies, visited a mourning center on Saturday set up for senior official Yang Hyong Sop, who died a day earlier, to express his condolences and meet with bereaved relatives. A separate KCNA envoy said officials and workers in the Northeast were launching initiatives to prevent an expected spring drought from harming crop yields and quality.
South Korea and China have offered to send vaccines, medical supplies and other relief supplies to North Korea, but Pyongyang has not publicly responded to the allegations. North Korea previously rejected millions of doses of vaccines offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program amid speculation that it was concerned about possible side effects of vaccines or international surveillance requirements attached to those shots.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that the United States supported international aid efforts but did not plan to share its vaccine supplies with the Nordic region. The North Korean virus outbreak could still be a major topic of discussion when President Joe Biden visits Seoul later this week for a summit with newly installed South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.
South Korea’s former spy chief Park Jie-won wrote on Facebook on Friday that in May 2021, as then director of the National Intelligence Service, he had proposed that Washington send 60 million doses of vaccines to North Korea as humanitarian aid via COVAX. He said there were later negotiations in the UN and the Vatican to also send 60 million doses to North Korea, but such assistance was never realized as no formal offers were made to North Korea.
Park said he hopes North Korea will accept Yoon’s aid offer quickly, though he said he doubts North Korea would do so.