North Korea confirms 21 new deaths in fight against COVID-19

North Korea confirms 21 new deaths in fight against COVID-19

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Saturday reported 21 new deaths and 174,440 more people with fever symptoms as the country scrambles to slow the spread of COVID-19 among its unvaccinated population.

The new deaths and cases since Friday brought the total to 27 deaths and 524,440 illnesses, while the fever has been spreading rapidly since late April. North Korea said 243,630 people have recovered and 280,810 remain in quarantine. State media have not specified how many of the fevers and deaths have been confirmed as COVID-19 infections.

The country imposed so-called maximum preventive measures on Thursday after confirming its first COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. For more than two years previously, it had stuck to a widely-disputed claim that a perfect record keeps the virus, which has spread to almost every corner of the world, at bay.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un described the outbreak as a historic “major upheaval” during a meeting of the ruling party’s political bureau on Saturday, and called for unity between the government and the people to stabilize the outbreak as soon as possible.

Officials during the meeting mainly discussed ways to quickly distribute medical supplies the country has released from its emergency reserves, the official Pyongyang Korean Central News Agency said. In a report submitted to the Politburo, the North’s epidemic emergency bureau blamed most of the deaths on “mistakes such as over-intake of medication without scientific medical treatment.”

Kim, who said he is donating some of his private stash of medicines to support the anti-virus campaign, expressed optimism that the country could bring the outbreak under control and said most transmissions occur in communities that are isolated from each other and not each other spread region to region.

He urged officials to learn lessons from other nations’ successful pandemic responses, citing China, the North’s key ally, as an example.

However, China is under pressure to change its so-called “zero-COVID” strategy that has brought major cities to a standstill as it struggles to slow the rapidly evolving Omicron variant.

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

Experts say a failure to stem the spread of COVID-19 could have devastating consequences in North Korea given the country’s poor health care system and its 26 million people largely unvaccinated.

Tests of virus samples collected from an unspecified number of people with fevers in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, on Sunday confirmed they were infected with the Omicron variant, state media said. The country has so far officially confirmed one death related to Omicron infection.

Lacking vaccines, antiviral pills, intensive care units and other essential health tools to fight the virus, North Korea’s response to the pandemic will mainly consist of 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 locked residents in their homes, nor could it afford to risk doing so at the risk of further shocking people triggering a fragile economy, said Hong Min, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

Even as he called for stricter preventive measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, Kim has also stressed that the country’s economic goals should be met, which likely means large groups will continue to congregate at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.

North Korea’s claim of a perfect record in containing the virus for 2 1/2 years has been widely questioned. But its extremely strict border closures, large-scale quarantines and propaganda emphasizing antivirus controls as a matter of “national existence” may have prevented a major outbreak so far.

Experts are divided on whether the North’s announcement of the outbreak signals a willingness to seek outside help.

The country had shunned millions of doses offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly due to concerns about international surveillance requirements associated with those shots.

North Korea has a higher tolerance for civilian suffering than most other nations, and some experts say the country may be willing to accept a measure of death in order to gain immunity from infection, rather than receive vaccines and other outside help .

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 made no request for help. Relations between the rival Koreas have soured since 2019 following a derailment in Washington-Pyongyang nuclear talks.

But Kim’s call for his officials to learn from China’s experience suggests the North may soon request COVID-19-related medicines and testing equipment from China, said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang of South Korea’s Sejong Institute.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Friday Beijing is ready to offer assistance to North Korea, but said he had no information about such a request.

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

After two years of maintaining one of the world’s toughest border closures to protect its ailing health system, North Korea resumed rail freight services with China in January, apparently to ease the strain on its economy. China confirmed the route closure last month as it battles COVID-19 outbreaks in the border areas.

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

Kim has accelerated his weapons demonstrations in 2022, including the country’s first ICBM in almost five years. Experts say Kim’s brinkmanship is aimed at forcing Washington to embrace the idea of ​​the North as a nuclear power and negotiate lifting of crippling US-led sanctions and other concessions from a stronger position.

South Korean and US officials also say the North may be preparing to conduct its first nuclear test since 2017, which they say could take place as early as this month.

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