North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered the country’s military to respond to the surging but largely undiagnosed COVID-19 crisis that has left 50 people dead and infected 1.2 million in a matter of days.
- Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are believed to have been infected with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 since the end of April
- Kim Jong Un has criticized government health officials for not acting quickly enough to slow the spread of the virus
- South Korea and China have both offered extra assistance to Pyongyang to help curb the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country
State media has reported that more than 564,860 people are in quarantine due to a fever that has rapidly spread among people around the capital, Pyongyang, since late April.
Eight more deaths and 392,920 newly detected fevers were reported on Monday, the North’s emergency anti-virus headquarters said.
State media has not specified how many of those fevers were confirmed as COVID-19.
North Korea is believed to lack sufficient testing supplies to confirm coronavirus infections in large numbers and is mostly relying on isolating people with symptoms at shelters.
Failing to slow the virus could have dire consequences for North Korea, which has a poor health care system, and a population of 26 million people believed to be unvaccinated and generally malnourished.
Mr Kim criticized government health officials over what he portrayed as a botched pandemic response, he told a ruling party Politburo meeting on Sunday, saying medicine supplies are not being distributed to pharmacies in time because of their “irresponsible work attitude” and lack of organization, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said.
The Politburo had issued an emergency order to immediately release and quickly distribute state medicine reserves and for pharmacies to open for 24-hour shifts, but Mr Kim said such steps were not being properly followed.
Mr Kim ordered the medical units of his military to become involved in stabilizing the supply of medicine in Pyongyang, according to KCNA.
After the meeting on Sunday, Mr Kim and Politburo members made on-site inspections of pharmacies in a district in Pyongyang, where Kim lamented that most of the shops were in poor condition and lacked storage spaces.
Mr Kim also criticized some pharmacists for not wearing proper white gowns.
North Korea acknowledged a COVID-19 outbreak for the first time last Thursday, saying an unspecified number of people had tested positive for the Omicron variant.
It instituted a lockdown and Kim ordered public health officials, teachers and others to identify people with fevers so they could be quarantined.
North Korea’s claim of a perfect record in keeping out the virus for two-and-a-half years was widely doubted – but its extremely strict border closure, large-scale quarantines and propaganda that stressed anti-virus controls as a matter of “national existence “may have staved off a huge outbreak until now.
South Korea, China offer assistance to manage outbreak
It’s not clear if North Korea’s urgent messaging about its outbreak indicates a willingness to receive outside help.
The country shunned millions of vaccine doses offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, likely because they carried international monitoring requirements.
On Monday, South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol told Parliament that the country was willing to send vaccines, medicine, equipment and health personnel to North Korea, if it was willing to accept them.
South Korean officials say Pyongyang so far has made no request for Seoul’s help.
Inter-Korean relations have deteriorated since 2019 after the larger negotiations between the US and North Korea collapsed over disagreements involving the North’s nuclear arsenal and US-led sanctions.
Kim has previously praised China’s pandemic response and urged his officials to learn from it, which may indicate North Korea is more willing to accept help from its major ally.
Last week, Chinese officials said Beijing was ready to offer help, but they had no information about any such request being made.
Despite calling for a lockdown of cities and counties to slow the spread of COVID-19, Mr Kim also stressed the country’s economic goals should be met, which likely means huge groups will continue to gather at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.
While accelerating his missile tests, aimed at pressuring Washington for economic and security concessions, Mr Kim has been grappling with domestic challenges and a pandemic-shocked economy, pushing him to perhaps the toughest moment of his decade in power.
In recent weeks, state media has emphasized farming campaigns to protect crops amid a drought during rice-planting season – a concerning development in a country with chronic food shortages.
Mr Kim is also intent on achieving his stated goals in a five-year national development plan announced in early 2021, after he showed unusual candor by acknowledging that his previous economic plans were not working.
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