The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Coronavirus cases, deaths in North Korea surge as Kim blames officials

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un ordered his military to stabilize distribution of covid medicine as the country battles the first confirmed outbreak. (Video: Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un berated officials for delays in pandemic response and mobilized the country’s military to fight the nationwide coronavirus outbreak that is posing one of the toughest challenges to his rule.

For the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping the world in early 2020, Pyongyang admitted last week that the country is facing an “explosive” spread of the virus, a concerning development for the largely unvaccinated country.

North Korea’s Central News Agency reported Monday that more than 1.2 million people fell ill with “fever,” of which 50 people have died since late April. Experts noted that North Korean authorities appear to use the word “fever” as a euphemism for covid-19, as they probably lack the capacity for proper diagnosis because of a shortage of test kits.

North Korea reports 6 deaths amid ‘explosive’ coronavirus outbreak

Lacking medical resources, the country of 25 million appears to be handling the surging number of patients by mostly isolating them. More than 560,000 people with “fever” in North Korea are in quarantine, state media said Monday.

Since North Korea reported its first official coronavirus case Thursday, Kim locked down the country and ordered officials to “absolutely curb the spread of the malicious virus,” but his public health orders have not been followed by officials, he said Sunday.

“He strongly criticized the Cabinet and public health sector for their irresponsible work attitude and organizing and executing ability,” the KCNA reported Monday.

During Sunday’s emergency Politburo meeting, Kim condemned the slow speed of medicine distribution to local pharmacies and ordered the national army’s medical unit to help stabilize medicine supply. After the meeting, Kim made visits to pharmacies in Pyongyang and lamented their “poor situation” that even lacked proper medicine storage.

Over the past 2½ years, Pyongyang maintained a “zero covid” policy that included stringent quarantine measures and a closed border, which might have allowed the country to avoid a major outbreak but caused health and food crises.

Outside experts have long doubted North Korea’s claims that the country is free from the coronavirus.

Just weeks before announcing its first official case, North Korea held a massive military parade in Pyongyang that gathered about 20,000 people, in what experts said could have been a superspreader event.

North Korea faces its first covid outbreak without any vaccines

North Korea has already rebuffed offers of millions of vaccine doses by the U.N.-based Covax distribution program, probably because of concerns about accepting monitoring personnel into the country.

North Korea has not yet responded to offers of coronavirus aid from its rival South Korea, reported Seoul’s Unification Ministry on Monday. The ministry said Seoul is willing to provide the North with resources such as vaccines, medicines, masks and diagnostic kits, and also share best practices for pandemic response.

Oh Myoung-don, an infectious-disease expert at Seoul National University, said the coronavirus epidemic in North Korea appears to have started a month ago and it might be too late to be resolved by vaccines. “Of course the vaccines are important, but unfortunately vaccines are not expected to play a big role in containing this outbreak” in North Korea, he told a seminar hosted by his university on Monday.

Oh said it will take at least a month for North Korea to receive the vaccines, distribute them and immunize citizens, while the country urgently needs immediate medical support like antiviral treatments for patients already infected with the virus. Given the country’s poor health infrastructure, the covid death toll in North Korea could surpass 34,000, he said.

Loading...