North Korea confirms 21 new deaths amid COVID-19 outbreak

SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea on Saturday reported 21 new deaths and 174,440 more people with fever symptoms as the country struggles to slow the spread of COVID-19 in its unvaccinated population.

The new deaths and cases, which occurred from Friday, brought the total number to 27 deaths and 524,440 illnesses amid a rapid spread of the fever since late April. North Korea said 243,630 people had recovered and 280,810 remained in quarantine. State media did not specify how many fever cases and deaths were confirmed as COVID-19 infections.

The country imposed what it described as maximum preventive measures on Thursday after confirming its first cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Previously, there were more than two years for a largely dubious claim of a perfect record keeping the virus that has spread to almost everywhere in the world.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, during a meeting of the ruling party’s Politburo on Saturday, described the outbreak as a “major turning point” and called for unity between the government and the people to stabilize the outbreak as quickly as possible.

Officials during the meeting mainly discussed ways to quickly distribute medical supplies that the country has released from its emergency stockpiles, the Pyongyang Central Korean News Agency said. In a report presented to the Politburo, the North’s emergency epidemic office blamed most of the deaths on “mistakes such as excessive drug use without scientific medical treatment.”

Kim, who said he was donating some of his private drugs to help with the anti-virus campaign, expressed optimism that the country could bring the outbreak under control, saying most transmissions are taking place within communities that are isolated from each other and not spreading. region to region.

He urged officials to draw lessons from other nations’ successful responses to the pandemic and chose an example in China, the North’s main ally.

China, however, has been facing pressure to change its so-called “zero-COVID” strategy, which has brought major cities to a standstill as it struggles to slow down the fast-moving omicron variant.

North Korea since Thursday imposed measures aimed at restricting the movement of people and supplies between cities and counties, but state media descriptions of the measures indicate that people are not confined to their homes.

Experts say a failure to control the spread of COVID-19 could have devastating consequences in North Korea, given the country’s poor healthcare system and its 26 million people are unvaccinated.

Tests of virus samples collected on Sunday from an unspecified number of people with fever in the nation’s capital Pyongyang confirmed they were infected with the omicron variant, state media reported. So far, the country has officially confirmed one death linked to an omicron infection.

Without vaccines, antiviral pills, intensive care units and other important health tools to fight the virus, North Korea’s response to the pandemic will mainly be isolating people with symptoms in designated shelters, experts say.

North Korea does not have the technological and other resources to impose extreme lockdowns like China, which has shut down entire cities and confined residents to their homes, nor could it do so at the risk of triggering further shocks in a fragile economy, said Hong Min, analyst at the Korean Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

Even calling for stronger preventive measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, Kim also stressed that the country’s economic targets must be met, which likely means large groups will continue to gather at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.

North Korea’s claim of a perfect track record in keeping the virus at bay for 2½ years has been widely questioned. But its extremely strict border closures, large-scale quarantines and propaganda that emphasized antivirus controls as a matter of “national existence” may have prevented a major outbreak so far.

Experts are confused about whether the North’s announcement of the outbreak communicates a willingness to receive outside help.

The country had avoided millions of doses offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly because of concerns about international monitoring requirements associated with these injections.

North Korea has a greater tolerance for civilian suffering than most other nations and some experts say the country may be willing to accept a certain level of fatalities to gain immunity through infection rather than receiving vaccines and other aid. external.

South Korea’s new conservative government, led by President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office on Tuesday, has offered to send vaccines and other medical supplies to North Korea, but Seoul officials say the North has so far did not make any requests for help. Relations between the rival Koreas have worsened since 2019 after a derailment in nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

However, Kim’s call for his staff to learn from China’s experience indicates that the North may soon be able to order COVID-19-related drugs and testing equipment from China, said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang of Korea’s Sejong Institute. southern.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Friday that Beijing was ready to offer aid to North Korea, but said he had no information on such a request.

North Korea’s viral spread could have been accelerated after an estimated tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers gathered for a massive military parade on April 25 in Pyongyang, where Kim took center stage and displayed the most powerful missiles ever. its military nuclear program.

After maintaining one of the world’s strictest border closures for two years to protect its poor healthcare system, North Korea reopened rail freight traffic with China in January, apparently to ease pressure on its economy. China confirmed the route’s closure last month as it battled outbreaks of COVID-19 in border areas.

Hours after the North acknowledged its first COVID-19 infections on Thursday, South Korea’s military detected the North’s test firing three ballistic missiles in what appeared to be a defiant show of force.

Kim has ramped up his weapons demonstrations in 2022, including the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile in nearly five years. Experts say Kim’s move is intended to force Washington to accept the idea of ​​the North as a nuclear power and negotiate the removal of crippling US-led sanctions and other concessions from a stronger position.

South Korean and US officials also say the North is possibly preparing to carry out its first nuclear test since 2017, which they say could happen as early as this month.

Commercial satellite images from the past few weeks indicate that North Korea has resumed construction of a long-dormant nuclear reactor at its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon, in a possible move to increase production of fissile material and expand its stockpile of nuclear weapons. according to a study released Friday by US scientists.

Completion of the 50 megawatt reactor could increase the country’s production of plutonium for bomb fuel by 10 times, said the report co-authored by Jeffrey Lewis, Joshua Pollack and David Schmerler at the Middlebury Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. of International Studies.

The researchers said it was difficult to estimate how quickly North Korea could complete construction of the reactor.

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