North Korea reports first Covid deaths amid ‘explosive’ outbreak

North Korea reports first Covid deaths amid ‘explosive’ outbreak

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SEOUL — North Korea has announced an “explosive” coronavirus outbreak that has killed six and infected 350,000 across the country since April, a day after the country admitted Covid-19 had finally reached it.

State media dubbed the outbreak a “public health crisis,” though its full extent remains unclear. North Korea is also one of two countries that has not administered coronavirus vaccines, raising concerns among experts that it could become an epicenter for new variants.

North Korea’s Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Friday that nearly 190,000 people are in quarantine while 162,000 of the more than 350,000 infected have recovered. The agency said one of the six who died had tested positive for the Omicron subvariant BA.2 of the coronavirus.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who ordered a nationwide lockdown after announcing the country’s first official coronavirus infection on Thursday, was quoted by KCNA as admitting that the spreading infections are a “grave sign of failures in our anti- epidemic system”. The authoritarian leader appeared in public for the first time on Thursday wearing a face mask.

For more than two years, while the pandemic raged around the world, North Korea had claimed to be free of infection. However, experts say the virus likely spread across the country well before Pyongyang’s official announcement this week.

North Korea’s “zero Covid” policy meant it maintained strict quarantine measures and a closed border for the past two years, resulting in secondary health and nutrition crises, according to a report by a panel of experts convened by the Washington-based Center for Strategic led and international studies.

“Most North Koreans are chronically malnourished and unvaccinated, medicines are scarce in the country, and health infrastructure is inadequate to deal with this pandemic,” said Lina Yoon, Korea senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Pyongyang has also repeatedly rejected Seoul’s offers of vaccines and other medical assistance. Kwon Young-se, South Korea’s nominee minister for unification, said Thursday the ministry stands ready to “actively continue” aid to North Korea as the Omicron variant could exacerbate the humanitarian crisis there.

Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea analyst at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said the Omicron variant will cause “chaos” in North Korea for up to a year. “For the time being, however, North Korea is not expected to accept corona aid from outside, especially from the western world,” he said.

Despite the virus outbreak, North Korea is unlikely to abandon plans to test missiles and nuclear weapons that could be used to boost public morale amid a health crisis, Cheong said.

On Thursday, hours after North Korea reported its first coronavirus outbreak, North Korea fired three short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast, according to the South Korean military.

Seoul’s National Security Office criticized the tests in a statement Thursday, saying North Korea has “ignored the lives and safety of its people and continued ballistic missile provocations” despite the rapid spread of the virus.

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