North Korea has lifted restrictions on movement in the capital city of Pyongyang, according to media reports.
Just weeks after the hermit kingdom announced its first COVID-19 outbreak, it now claims to have the virus situation under control.
But what is the situation really?
North Korea only announced cases last month
After two years of the world dealing with the pandemic, North Korea only confirmed its first COVID-19 infections of the pandemic on May 12.
Until that point, the already isolated country had sealed its borders and restricted travel.
In announcing the outbreak, state news agency KCNA called it the “gravest national emergency”.
“A break emerged in our emergency epidemic prevention front that had been firmly defended until now.”
The news agency then announced a “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system” and a national lockdown.
In the days and weeks since, North Korea has announced tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of new daily cases.
On May 16, the country announced 392,930 new daily cases – a figure markedly higher than in countries such as Australia, the United States and China.
Then on Monday it lifted movement restrictions imposed in Pyongyang.
So, does it have the virus under control?
Because of its isolation from the rest of the world, information coming out of North Korea throughout the pandemic has been scant.
Japan’s Kyodo news agency, citing an unnamed source in Beijing, said the restrictions in Pyongyang had been lifted as of Sunday.
That report came shortly after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presided over a politburo meeting to discuss revising anti-epidemic restrictions.
KCNA said Mr Kim and politburo members made a positive evaluation of the pandemic situation across the country, assessing the outbreak situation as “improving”.
“The Political Bureau examined the issue of effectively and quickly coordinating and enforcing the anti-epidemic regulations and guidelines given the current stable anti-epidemic situation,” KCNA said on Sunday.
The reported winding back of restrictions in the capital comes as North Korea maintains a widely disputed claim its first COVID outbreak-19 is slowing.
How bad is the outbreak really?
In the most recent reporting from Thursday, state media announced 96,610 more people were showing fever symptoms.
KCNA also reported the death toll had risen to 70.
Experts have said the announced figures could be underreported, and that is hard to assess the actual scale of the situation.
Kim Sin-gon, a professor at Seoul’s Korea University College of Medicine, said most of the people with a fever were likely virus patients.
He said North Korea had a limited number of COVID-19 testing kits.
North Korea also has no known COVID-19 vaccine program and there is no evidence it has imported or administered any vaccines.
It signed up to the COVAX initiative at the end of 2020 but a huge surge in Delta cases in India led to supply issues.
It was also anticipating a shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines but the reported side effects ultimately saw the country passing on the opportunity.
Why has North Korea announced these cases now?
This is a bit of a mystery.
Robert Kelly from South Korea’s Pusan National University said North Korea usually wanted to present a front, and it must be “pretty desperate” to come forward.
“I have a feeling that if they are breaking that front, then things are pretty bad,” Professor Kelly told the ABC.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said the hermit kingdom’s recent announcements about an outbreak could be a call for help.
“Isolation and control are not enough to overcome the crisis without vaccines.”
Kee Park, the director of the North Korea Program at the Korean American Medical Association, told ABC RN’s Sunday Extra the announcement of cases signaled a few things.
He said KCNA announced the country had found the Omicron BA.2 sub-variant, which showed North Korea was able to detect both the virus and identify the sub-variant, which required a fairly sophisticated DNA sequencing technology.
The Omicron variant is highly contagious. Because North Korea relied on a prevention strategy, the breach in its defenses left it underprepared for the outbreak.
Another thing to note from the announcement, Dr Park said, was that the cases were reported as fevers.
“I think they were conceding that their strategy to prevent the virus had basically failed, right?” he said.
Dr Park told Sunday Extra the fact the country was actually disclosing the number of deaths, and the difficulties it was having responding to the pandemic, was a “big piece of news”.
“For example they’re sharing, they’re opening up their stocks, reserves of medicines to be shared with the population,” he said.
“To me, that’s an indication there is medication shortage.”
Dr Park also said the announcement of deaths signaled the country did not know how to treat the cases.
Loading form …
ABC / wires