SEOUL – North Korea reported 2.24 million people “sick with fever” Thursday night – a big leap from last week when the secretive nation acknowledged its first suspected case of COVID-19.
North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency still does not refer to the outbreak as COVID-19, probably because there are no test kits for diagnosing patients.
South Korean-based analysts, who have been monitoring the Nordic region closely for the past few decades, suggest that the inventory that the withdrawn regime reveals every day may not be accurate due to a lack of test capacity.
“There is no evidence that North Korea uses PCR test kits to determine COVID-19 patients, so no one outside can say with certainty whether it is just fever or COVID-19 symptoms,” said Philo Kim, associate professor at Seoul National. University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, ABC News reported Thursday night.
Since the coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe in 2020, North Korea has completely shut itself off from the outside world in an attempt to prevent the virus from penetrating its borders. No international organization has been able to enter the country to accurately determine its medical environment, except for a few Chinese medical experts.
Analysts believe that Pyongyang will continue to resemble China’s totalitarian approach to the pandemic with further isolation and severe lockdowns, leaving them no choice but to aim for collective immunization.
“The most worrying thing of all is that there can be so many deaths, so much that is unthinkable,” Dr. Kim Sin-gon, a professor at Korea University’s College of Medicine in Seoul who has been involved in supplying Pyongyang with medical supplies, told ABC News Thursday night.
Dr. Jiho Cha, a professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology’s Moon Soul Graduate School of Future Strategy in Daejeon, agreed.
“It will take time to achieve herd immunity either through vaccinations or by having COVID,” Cha told ABC News Thursday night, adding that – no matter what – “a conservative number would be at least 200,000 deaths.”
Last year, the World Health Organization-led global vaccine-sharing scheme known as COVAX reached out to North Korea to offer nearly 3 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by the Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac. An additional 250,000 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by the US biotechnology company Novavax were later awarded to North Korea. However, Pyongyang rejected both offers and instead kept its borders closed.
Last week, South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol said he intends to supply COVID-19 vaccines and other medical supplies to North Korea with US approval, but Pyongyang has not yet responded.
“They do not want aid workers to come in and monitor,” Choi Gyubin, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, told ABC News Thursday night. “They also would not appreciate foreigners telling who gets the first vaccines in what areas.”
North Korean experts said the nation is likely to continue to adhere to its basic philosophy of self-confidence, but that its leader Kim Jong Un must soon make a decisive decision. After all, COVID-19 cases exploded after North Korea’s massive military parade last month, in which tens of thousands of young citizens from across the country participated. Earlier in the week, Kim reprimanded a few officers for not handling the initial phase of the outbreak successfully and professionally.
“[But] the fact is that it was none other than Kim Jong Un himself who should bear the responsibility for being late in dealing with this crisis situation, “Kim Sook, executive director of the Ban Ki-moon Foundation for a Better Future in Seoul and former South Korean. Ambassador to the United Nations, said during a panel discussion at California’s Stanford University on Thursday.
“Kim Jong Un made a bad bet – a very bad bet,” added Siegfried Hecker, a well-known expert on North Korea’s nuclear program, which is currently affiliated with Stanford University.
In light of North Korea’s current health situation, where a majority of the population suffers from malnutrition and with almost no vaccines, experts said the consequences of not moving fast enough could take a dangerous toll on the regime.
“North Korea is facing an increase in the number of pandemic patients, even after volunteering in strong isolation for the past two years,” Cha told ABC News. “There is a good chance that they will not be able to prevent the majority of its people from capturing COVID-19 even if they force further shutdowns.”
ABC News’ Eunseo Nam and Hyerim Lee contributed to this report.