By Kim Tong-hyung and Hyung-jin Kim
Seoul, South Korea ( Associated Press) — Six people have died and 350,000 have been treated for an “explosively” fever in North Korea, state media reported on Friday for the first time in a COVID-19 outbreak. Said a day after admitting the outbreak of 19. global pandemic.
North Korea likely did not have enough COVID-19 tests and other medical equipment and said it did not know the cause of the mass fever. But a large COVID-19 outbreak could be devastating in a country with a broken health care system and an uneducated, malnourished population.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said 162,200 of the 350,000 people who developed fever since late April have been cured. It said 18,000 people with symptoms of fever were found on Thursday alone, and 187,800 people were being isolated for treatment.
KCNA said one of the six people who died were confirmed to have been infected with the Omicron variant, but it was not immediately clear how many of the total illnesses were COVID-19.
North Korea imposed a nationwide lockdown on Thursday after admitting its first COVID-19 cases. Those reports said an unspecified number of people tested positive for the Omicron variant.
It is unusual for isolated North Korea to acknowledge any infectious disease outbreak, let alone one as dangerous as COVID-19, as the country is overly proud of outside perceptions about its self-described “socialist utopia” and is sensitive.
While Kim was occasionally candid about its deteriorating economy and other problems in recent years, he had repeatedly expressed confidence about North Korea’s pandemic response and wore a mask in public until Thursday’s ruling party meeting. Where the North declared COVID. -19 infection.
It is possible that the spread of the virus was accelerated by a huge military parade in Pyongyang on April 25, where North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took center stage and displayed the most powerful missiles of his military nuclear program to thousands of people. Did.
Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, said the pace of the fever’s spread suggests the crisis could last for months and possibly until 2023, causing major disruption in the poorly equipped country.
Some experts say that the initial announcement of the answer communicates a desire to seek outside help.
The answer omitted the millions of shots offered by the United Nations-backed COVAX distribution program last year, which included doses of AstraZeneca and China’s Sinovac vaccines, possibly because of questions about their effectiveness and reluctance to accept surveillance requirements. The country lacks a lot of cold storage systems that are needed for mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna.
The office of South Korea’s new conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol, who began his single five-year term on Tuesday, said his government is ready to provide vaccines and other medical supplies to North Korea and with the North on specific plans. Looking forward to discussing.
Boo Seung-chan, a spokesman for South Korea’s unification ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said Seoul could not immediately estimate the number of vaccine doses to be given to North Korea if Pyongyang requests help. Is.
Inter-Korean ties have worsened over the past three years amid a standoff in major nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang over disagreements about the exchange of US-led sanctions release against the North’s disarmament moves. Got off track.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Thursday that Beijing was offering North Korea help in dealing with the outbreak.
“As its partner, neighbor and friend, China is ready to provide full support and assistance to the DPRK in the fight against the epidemic,” Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing, the official name of North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic. of Korea using initials for.
KCNA said Kim was briefed about the fever outbreak when he visited emergency epidemic prevention headquarters on Thursday and criticized officials for failing to contain “a weak point in the epidemic prevention system”.
He said the spread of the fever is centered around the capital, Pyongyang, and underlined the importance of isolating all work and residential units from each other while providing residents with every facility during the lockdown.
KCNA quoted Kim as saying, “The most important challenge and supreme task before our party is to reverse the situation of an urgent public health crisis as quickly as possible, restore the stability of epidemic prevention and the health and well-being of our people.” protect the.”
North Korea’s claim of a perfect record in keeping the virus at bay for two and a half years was widely doubted. But it was believed to have avoided a major outbreak so far, as it had established strict virus controls from the start of the pandemic.
Strict border closures and other measures worsened an economy already damaged by decades of mismanagement and US-led sanctions on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, pushing Kim into perhaps the toughest moment of his regime.
Hours after confirming an outbreak of COVID-19 on Thursday, North Korea launched three short-range ballistic missiles toward the sea, presumably to demonstrate its might. This was North Korea’s 16th missile launch this year.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki cited North Korea’s stay away from COVAX vaccines, saying the United States supported international aid efforts but did not plan to share its vaccine supplies with the North.
“We continue to support international efforts aimed at the provision of vital humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable North Koreans, and of course, a broader part of the DPRK exploiting its own citizens by not accepting such assistance. continues, Psaki said Thursday in Washington.
“It’s not just vaccines. It’s also a range of humanitarian aid that can greatly help people and countries and instead use the resources they use to build their illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”
Associated Press journalist Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.