Thu. Jun 30th, 2022

Until last week, North Korea had claimed to have come through the coronavirus pandemic unscathed.

Now it has admitted to recording more than 1.48 million cases in less than a week.

With an unvaccinated population of 26 million, a poor healthcare system, no apparent antivirals and its leader lambasting health officials, the outbreak could be devastating for the reclusive country.

If you’re not exactly sure what’s going on, here are five quick questions to help you understand North Korea’s COVID-19 crisis.

1. How many COVID-19 cases have been reported?

After maintaining what appeared to be a perfect two-and-a-half-year record without COVID-19, North Korea announced last Thursday that an unspecified number of people in Pyongyang had tested positive for the Omicron variant.

Just three days later, state media reported a total of 42 deaths and 820,620 suspected cases, with 324,550 people under medical care.

On Tuesday, the country’s state media reported 269,510 more people with “feverish symptoms”, at least 663,910 people in quarantine and another six deaths.

That raised the total to 56 COVID-19-related deaths and more than 1.48 million reported “fever cases”.

North Korea isn’t saying how many of the “fever cases” have been confirmed as the virus. But experts believe most to be COVID-19.

2. What is Kim Jong Un’s regime saying about the crisis?

North Korea surprised the world by admitting to the outbreak last week.

Describing it as a “great upheaval”, leader Kim Jong Un ordered the country into lockdown, restricting the travel of people and supplies.

Mr Kim went on to publicly criticize his own government health officials over what he portrayed as a botched pandemic response.

He told a ruling party politburo meeting on Sunday that medicine supplies were not being distributed to pharmacies in time because of their “irresponsible work attitude” and lack of organization.

It has also been reported that Mr Kim is arresting healthcare officials.

Kim Jong Un at a meeting with officials and not wearing a mask.
Kim Jong Un has criticized and intimidated his own government health officials. (AP: Korean Central News Agency / Korea News Service)

3. Is North Korea telling the truth? How much can we believe?

It is no secret that North Korea is a country that keeps its cards close to its chest. So why admit to having coronavirus at all?

Professor Robert Kelly, of South Korea’s Pusan ​​National University, says he believes the country must be “pretty desperate” to come forward.

“This is the kind of thing that North Korea usually does not tell us, because it wants to present a front that things are great. I have a feeling that if they are breaking that front, then things are pretty bad,” he told ABC News.

Dr Leonid Petrov, a leading expert on North Korea from the International College of Management in Sydney, says that while it is “very likely” the country hid small clusters from the world, not revealing cases at this level would be “counter-productive” .

“North Korea is an alternative reality and they deny reality on a daily basis, but when everyone around you is sick… well, it’s not a good idea to deny. Even Kim Jong Un is wearing a mask.”

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North Korea is battling the worst COVID-19 outbreak, and Professor Robert Kelly says desperation has made Kim Jong Un speak out about their outbreak.(ABC News )

4. Does North Korea have enough medicines and supplies?

The bottom line? No.

In addition to lacking vaccines for its 26 million people, North Korea also grapples with malnourishment, poverty and a poor healthcare system.

The country does not have enough testing kits to confirm coronavirus infections in large numbers and is reportedly mostly relying on isolating people with symptoms at shelters.

Despite offers of aid from multiple countries, Dr Petrov says North Korea may not accept vaccines or outside help.

“They have this dilemma: to either accept the vaccine and be like everybody else or not accept it and still be claiming victory over COVID without vaccines, claiming that they are the ‘purest race’ and have the magic kingship.”

He says Mr Kim needs to play “the information game”: monitoring how many people are sick and how many people are dead.

Kim Jong Un stands in front of a glass counter inside a pharmacy wearing a face mask.
Experts say it is hard for the country to deny a COVID crisis when “even Kim Jong Un is wearing a mask”. (KCNA via Reuters)

5. How will this pan out for Kim and his regime?

Dr Petrov says Mr Kim may take the COVID-19 crisis as another way to show his “leadership”

“People in a totalitarian society, living in reality where they must rely on the leader – for the leader, it is a test,” he said.

How much can Kim Jong Un do about coronavirus? Probably not much.

“But he can present the whole situation as an unprecedented crisis, something that will challenge the nation but he will step in fearlessly and turn around the situation by punishing the culprits and diverging resources into helping the people,” Dr Petrov adds.

“The propaganda will depict another invincible victory of the great leader.

“For him, it’s an opportunity.”


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United States passes grim milestone of 1 million COVID-19 deaths.

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