Nearly 10% of North Korea’s population sick amid COVID outbreak

North Korea said on Friday nearly 10% of its 26 million people fell ill and 65 people died during its first outbreak of COVID-19, as outside experts question the validity of its claims. reported deaths and are concerned about a possible humanitarian crisis.

After admitting the Omicron outbreak last week after more than two years of claiming to be coronavirus-free, North Korea said an unidentified fever had spread explosively across the country since late April. . Its anti-epidemic center has since released fever counts every morning via state media, but they don’t include any COVID-19 numbers.

“It is true that there was a hole in his 2½ years of fighting the pandemic,” said Kwak Gil Sup, head of One Korea Center, a website specializing in North Korean affairs. “But there’s a saying that North Korea is ‘a theater state’ and I think they’re manipulating the COVID-19 stats.”

Kwak said North Korea was likely partly using the outbreak as a propaganda tool to show it was overcoming the pandemic with Kim’s leadership. But the country has “a plan B” and “a plan C” to seek Chinese and foreign aid if the pandemic spirals out of control, he said.

WATCH | North Korea refuses aid offers amid outbreak:

North Korea refuses aid offers to fight COVID-19 outbreak

There are fears of a COVID-19 disaster in North Korea as officials reject offers of vaccines and aid from other countries. The spike in cases is partly blamed on a series of nationwide celebrations in April where huge unvaccinated crowds gathered, likely spreading the virus.

On Friday, the Northern State Emergency Epidemic Prevention Headquarters said an additional 263,370 people had fever symptoms and two more people died, bringing the total number of fever cases to 2.24 million and deaths at 65. They said 754,810 people remained in quarantine, according to Korea’s official newspaper Central News. Agency.

The outbreak likely stemmed from an April 25 military parade in Pyongyang that Kim held to show off his new missiles and loyal troops. The parade and other related festivals, which marked the anniversary of the founding of the North Korean military, drew tens of thousands of people and soldiers from Pyongyang and other parts of the country, who returned home after the events.

South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers on Thursday that “a considerable number” of fever cases reported by North Korea include people with waterborne illnesses like measles, typhoid and whooping cough. .

The National Intelligence Service (NIS) assessed that these diseases had already spread across North Korea even before COVID-19 broke out, according to Ha Tae-keung, a lawmaker who attended a private briefing. of the NIS.

Ha quoted the NIS as saying waterborne diseases were spreading due to shortages of drugs and medical supplies following the North’s previous long-running anti-pandemic measures.

People at a train station in Seoul watch a TV report earlier this week about the COVID-19 outbreak in North Korea. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

The real numbers are unclear

The NIS “said it was unclear what percentage of fever cases were coronavirus patients. It said North Korea lacked coronavirus diagnostic kits but appeared to have enough thermometers,” it said. Ha.

The NIS has a spotty record in confirming developments in North Korea. Some civilian medical experts said earlier they believed most of North Korea’s reported fever cases were COVID-19.

Earlier this week, a health official told state television that the government detected 168 cases of COVID-19 on Monday, as fever cases nationwide already topped 1 million. There have been no updates on virus cases from the North since then.

WATCH | Concerns about possible under-reporting in North Korea’s COVID battle:

North Korea’s COVID-19 cases near 2 million

North Korea has reported an additional 262,270 cases of people with suspected symptoms of COVID-19 as its pandemic caseload nears two million.

Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website focused on health issues in North Korea, said Pyongyang had likely determined that its omicron outbreak would not cause catastrophic deaths, but disclosed it. to avoid possible public disturbances. He said North Korea’s increased anti-virus measures were in part aimed at tightening its grip on a public tired of previous restrictions and other hardships.

“North Korea’s response to the pandemic is not completely staged as people are dying. But it is obvious that the political intentions of its leaders have been added to it,” Ahn said. “One day they will proclaim their victory over COVID-19 in a colorful way.”

North Korea’s public medical system remains in shambles, and experts say the country could suffer mass deaths in the event of a pandemic if it does not receive outside help. They say the country’s high restrictions on movement and quarantine rules may also worsen its food insecurity.

The NIS said North Korea intended to overcome the pandemic with the help of its main ally, China, according to Ha and Kim Byung-kee, another lawmaker who was briefed by the spy service. .

At an anti-virus meeting on Saturday, Kim said his country was facing “a great upheaval” and that officials needed to study how China and other countries had handled the pandemic.

Some media said North Korea had already sent planes to China to bring back emergency supplies earlier this week, but the South Korean government said it could not confirm the information.

South Korea has said so and the United States has offered to ship vaccines, medicine and other medical supplies to North Korea, but the North has not responded.