SEOUL (AP) — The coronavirus has been spreading across North Korea “at an explosive rate” since late last month, killing six people and leaving 187,800 in quarantine, the country’s state media reported Friday.
The country’s health officials admitted an emerging public health crisis as their leader Kim Jong-un visited the national disease control headquarters on Thursday, North Korea’s official Central News Agency said.
In a sign of growing urgency, state Central Television first showed Kim wearing a mask during a Workers’ Party meeting.
The fact that the virus was spreading across the country meant that North Korea had “gaps in its epidemiological system,” Kim was quoted as saying.
North Korea said it had learned of its first outbreak after health officials on Sunday tested people at an unidentified organization in the capital Pyongyang who showed symptoms including fever. They were confirmed to be infected with the BA.2 subvariant of the virus, she said.
The country declared a “peak emergency” and ordered all cities and counties in the nation of 25 million to lock down to combat the spread.
North Korea’s admission of an outbreak was an abrupt change for the secretive country, which had long insisted it had no cases of the virus that first emerged in neighboring China more than two years ago. However, outside experts had been skeptical, citing a lack of comprehensive Covid testing and the North’s frayed public health system.
Kim said 350,000 people had a fever since the end of April, including 18,000 on Thursday. She added that 162,200 people had been successfully treated. Reports on the outbreak so far have been vague, without clarifying, for example, how many of the 350,000 people found with a fever have tested positive for the virus.
“Like any other data from North Korea, the figures are subject to debate and we cannot fully trust them,” said Ahn Kyung-su, who runs DPRKHealth.org, a Seoul-based website and network of public health experts who study North Korea. “But what is clear is that North Korea has the Covid phenomenon, and by releasing those figures, North Korea appears to be sending signals that it is finally ready to accept foreign aid related to Covid.”
So far, North Korea has not accepted any humanitarian aid related to the pandemic, including donations of vaccines from world health organizations. South Korean officials hope the humanitarian shipments, including Covid-19 vaccines, could help restart diplomatic dialogue between North Korea and the United States and its allies.
The danger posed by the covid outbreak is greater in North Korea than in most other nations because most of its inhabitants are not vaccinated. Outside health experts have long questioned the North’s ability to combat a large-scale outbreak, though its regime is capable of imposing harsh controls on the movement of residents.
The outbreak, if not brought under control quickly, could increase pressure on the country’s economy, which has already been hit hard by years of United Nations sanctions and its decision two years ago to close its border with China, its only partner. important business, to prevent the spread of the virus.
Hours after admitting the outbreak on Thursday, North Korea launched three ballistic missiles from near Pyongyang into the sea off its east coast, the South Korean military said. It was the North’s 16th missile test this year and an indication that it was moving forward with weapons tests despite the virus threat.