SEOUL, South Korea >> North Korea on Monday reported 8 new deaths and 392,920 more people with fevers amid a growing COVID-19 outbreak as leader Kim Jong Un blasted officials over delays in medicine deliveries and ordered his military to get involved in the pandemic response in the country’s capital, Pyongyang.
The North’s emergency anti-virus headquarters said more than 1.2 million people fell ill amid a rapid spread of fever since late April and about 564,860 are currently under quarantine. The eight new deaths reported in the 24 hours through 6 p.m. Sunday brought its death toll to 50.
State media didn’t specify how many of the fever cases and deaths were confirmed as COVID-19 cases. Experts say North Korea likely lacks testing supplies and equipment to confirm coronavirus infections in large numbers and is mostly relying on isolating people with symptoms at shelters.
Experts say the failure to slow the virus could have dire consequences for North Korea, considering its poor health care system. Its population of 26 million people are believed to be mostly unvaccinated after their government had shunned millions of shots offered by the U.N.-backed COVAX distribution program, likely over concerns related to international monitoring requirements.
North Korea acknowledged its first COVID-19 outbreak last Thursday when it announced that an unspecified number of people in Pyongyang tested positive for the omicron outbreak. It had previously held for more than two years to a widely doubted claim of a perfect record keeping out the virus that has spread to nearly every place in the world.
Kim during a ruling party Politburo meeting on Sunday criticized government and health officials over what he portrayed as a botched pandemic response, saying state medicine supplies aren’t being supplied to pharmacies in time because of their “irresponsible work attitude” and lack of organization, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said.
The Politburo had issued an emergency order to immediately release and quickly distribute state medicine reserves and for pharmacies to switch over to 24-hour shifts, but Kim said such steps weren’t being properly implemented. Kim ordered that the medical units of his military to get involved in stabilizing the supply of medicine in Pyongyang, KCNA said.
State media had previously said a workforce of more than 1.3 million — including public health officials, teachers and medical university students — were mobilized to find people with fevers or other symptoms so that they could be quarantined.
North Korea’s claim of a perfect record in keeping out the virus for 2 1/2 years 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.
While North Korea could suffer huge fatalities if it doesn’t quickly receive international shipments of medical supplies, it’s not immediately clear whether the North’s admission of the outbreak communicates a willingness to receive outside help.
Rival South Korea has offered to send vaccines and other supplies, but Seoul officials say the North has not made such a request. But some experts say Kim’s comments last week during another Politburo meeting, where he praised China’s pandemic response and urged his officials to learn from it, suggest that the North could be more willing to accept help from its major ally.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said last week that Beijing was ready to offer North Korea help but said he had no information about any such request being made.
Even as he called for stronger 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 huge groups will continue to gather at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.
While accelerating his missile tests in a brinkmanship aimed at pressuring the United States for economic and security concessions, Kim has been grappling with domestic challenges at home as pandemic-related difficulties unleashed further shock on an economy broken by decades of mismanagement and crippling U.S.-led sanctions against the North, pushing him to perhaps the toughest moment since he took power in 2011.