SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea on Wednesday reported 232,880 new cases of fever and another six deaths as leader Kim Jong Un accused officials of “immaturity” and “slackness” in their early handling of the COVID-19 outbreak ravaging across the unvaccinated nation.
The country’s anti-virus headquarters said 62 people have died and more than 1.7 million have fallen ill amid a rapid spread of fever since late April. It said more than a million people recovered but at least 691,170 remain in quarantine.
Outside experts say most of the illnesses would be COVID-19, although North Korea has been able to confirm only a small number of COVID-19 cases since acknowledging an omicron outbreak last week, likely because of insufficient testing capabilities.
A failure to control the outbreak could have dire consequences in North Korea, considering its broken health care system and its rejection of internationally offered vaccines that has left a population of 26 million unimmunized.
The outbreak is almost certainly greater than the fever tally, considering the lack of tests and resources to monitor the sick, and there’s also suspicion that North Korea is underreporting deaths to soften the blow for Kim, who already was navigating the toughest moment of his decade in power. The pandemic has further damaged an economy already broken by mismanagement and U.S.-led sanctions over Kim’s nuclear weapons and missiles development.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said Kim during a ruling party Politburo meeting on Tuesday criticized officials over their early pandemic response, which he said underscored “immaturity in the state capacity for coping with the crisis” and blamed the vulnerability on their “non-positive attitude, slackness and non-activity.”
He urged officials to strengthen virus controls at workplaces and make “redoubled efforts” to improve the supply of daily necessities and stabilize living conditions, the KCNA said Wednesday.
Kim’s comments came days after he ripped officials over how they were handling the distribution of medicine released from state reserves and mobilized his army to help transport the supplies to pharmacies in capital Pyongyang, which were made open 24 hours to deal with the crisis..
KCNA said nearly 3,000 members of the Korean People’s Army’s medical units were helping the delivery of medicine to pharmacies, while more than 1.4 million officials, teachers and students in public health sectors were being deployed for checkups aimed at identifying people with symptoms so they could be quarantined.
Lacking public health tools like vaccines, antiviral pills and intensive care units that lowered hospitalizations and deaths in other nations, North Korea has been relying on finding people with symptoms and isolating them at shelters.
While raising alarm over the outbreak, Kim has also stressed that his economic goals should be met. State media reports show large groups of workers are continuing to gather at farms, mining facilities, power stations and construction sites, being driven to ensure their works are “propelled as scheduled.”
Before acknowledging COVID-19 infections last Thursday, North Korea had insisted of a perfect record in keeping out the virus that has reached nearly ever corner of the world, a claim that was widely doubted. But its extremely strict border closure, large-scale quarantines and propaganda that stressed anti-virus controls as a matter of “national existence” may have staved off a huge outbreak until now.
It’s unclear whether the North’s admission of a COVID-19 outbreak communicates a willingness to accept outside help. Kim’s government had shunned millions of vaccine shots offered by the U.N.-backed COVAX distribution program, likely because of international monitoring requirements attached to them.
North Korea and Eritrea are the only sovereign U.N.-member countries not to have rolled out vaccines. World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a briefing Tuesday that the agency has offered to send both countries vaccines, medicines, tests and technical support, but that neither country’s leader has yet responded.
“WHO is deeply concerned at the risk of further spread in (North Korea),” Tedros said, also noting the country has worrying numbers of people with underlying conditions that put them at risk of severe disease.
WHO emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan said any unchecked transmission in countries like North Korea and Eritrea could spur the emergence of new variants, but that the WHO was powerless to act unless countries accepted its help.
The North has so far ignored rival South Korea’s offer to provide vaccines, medicine and health personnel, but experts say the North may be more willing to accept help from its main ally China. South Korea’s government said it couldn’t confirm media reports that North Korea flew multiple planes to bring back emergency supplies from China on Tuesday.
North Korean officials during Tuesday’s meeting continued to express confidence that the country could overcome the crisis on its own, with the Politburo members discussing ways for “continuously maintaining the good chance in the overall epidemic prevention front,” KCNA said.
While Kim was seen wearing masks for the first time following North Korea’s admission of COVID-19 infections last week, state media photos of Tuesday’s meeting showed Kim and Politburo members engaging in discussions barefaced, in a possible expression of confidence.
North Korea’s COVID-19 outbreak came amid a provocative run in weapons demonstrations, including its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile in nearly five years, in a brinkmanship aimed at forcing the United States to accept the idea of the North as a nuclear power and negotiate economic and security concessions from a position of strength.
There are also signs that the North is restoring a nuclear testing ground that was last active in 2017 in possible preparations to resume nuclear explosive tests, which U.S. and South Korean officials say could happen as early as this month.
Recent commercial satellite images of the testing ground in Punggye-ri indicate refurbishment work and preparations at a yet unused tunnel on the southern part of the site, which is presumably nearing completion to host a nuclear test, according to an analysis released Tuesday by Beyond Parallel, a website run by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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