Unvaccinated and unprepared, North Korea faces Covid disaster

When a defecting South Korean maritime official tried to swim across the border in 2020, the North Korean navy shot him and burned his body at sea for fear he might be infected with the coronavirus.

Five months later, a group of Russian diplomats and their families were forced to propel themselves and their luggage across the North Korean border on a hand-pushed railway cart.

Both episodes illustrate the extreme lengths that Kim Jong Un, who sealed the country’s borders in February 2020, was willing to go to to prevent his unvaccinated and undernourished nation from coming into contact with Covid-19.

But faith in this strategy of complete isolation was shattered last week when North Korean health authorities admitted their first cases of the virus. Since then, nearly 2 million cases in the country of 25 million people have been reported, although only a handful of patients have officially tested positive for the coronavirus.

“The regime has spent so long denying they had even a single case, so it’s quite shocking for them to admit it the way they have,” said Jenny Town, director of the 38 North program at the Stimson Center. -tank in Washington. “It shows how serious the situation is.”

On Thursday, North Korean state media reported 262,270 new cases of unidentified “fever” and one death, bringing the official death toll to 63.

More than 240,000 people are being treated for a ‘malignant virus’ in Pyongyang © Korean Central News Agency/AP

According to state broadcaster Korean Central Television, as of May 15, 240,459 people were being treated for the “malignant virus” in the capital Pyongyang, representing around 7% of the city’s population.

KCT also reported outbreaks in the southern city of Kaesong, near the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, and in the northern city of Rason, near the border with Russia.

“After two and a half years, we know the consequences of outbreaks in unvaccinated populations,” said Jerome Kim, chief executive of the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul.

“Let’s hope that North Korea can avail itself of the necessary tests, medicines, equipment and vaccines to avert an impending humanitarian, economic crisis. [and] biological crises, as the rampant spread can also be associated with the generation of viral variants.

North Korea is one of only two countries not to have launched a vaccination program against Covid-19.

Until news last week that an unknown number of people in Pyongyang had contracted the Omicron variant, North Korean authorities had refused to acknowledge even a single case within the country’s borders. .

Kim Jong Un visits a pharmacy in Pyongyang
Kim Jong Un visits a pharmacy in Pyongyang. The North Korean dictator has criticized authorities for their handling of the outbreak © Korean Central News Agency/AP

Internal propaganda trumpeted the regime’s success in protecting its people, comparing its achievements favorably to the efforts of neighboring South Korea.

The North Korean government has not identified the source of the outbreak. But Go Myong-hyun, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said the regime had shown signs of complacency in recent months.

“North Korea had already resumed some trade with China after almost two years of strict border control measures,” Go said. “Then last month he gathered large crowds in Pyongyang for a military parade which is become a very widespread event. It was a perfect storm.

Kim, who last week began wearing a face mask in regular public appearances, lambasted officials for their “immaturity” and “non-positive attitude, laxity and inactivity” in their handling of the outbreak.

At a politburo meeting this week, Kim hinted at a leadership purge, saying the government “must eradicate the weak links and strengthen the health quarantine system.”

According to the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper, Kim added that the crisis “presents a test for discerning the good and bad sides of all our nation’s systems.”

Town said it was “Kim’s way of trying to demonstrate to people that he has identified the problem and is dealing with the incompetence at the lower levels. He seems to want to show that he is tackling the problem head-on.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, said this week that North Korea was still refusing offers of vaccines, drugs, tests and technical assistance.

“WHO is deeply concerned about the risk of spreading [in North Korea]“said Ghebreyesus.

According to local news reports in South Korea, planes operated by North Korea’s national carrier flew to China this week to pick up pandemic supplies and deliver them to Pyongyang.

China’s foreign ministry said last week that China is “ready to do everything to provide support and assistance to North Korea in the fight against the virus.”

Hanna Song of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul expressed doubts about the ability of the North Korean health system to deliver the treatment.

“Before the pandemic, drugs came from the black market, were smuggled across the border from China or through international aid organizations,” Song said.

“North Korean escapees who worked as doctors and nurses tell us that even in 2019 they should reuse things like syringes, gauze and bandages,” she added. “We can only imagine how low supplies must be now after more than two years of border closures, and the conditions under which they will operate.”

But Go said humanitarian concerns were not high on the leaders’ list of priorities.

“Accepting vaccines and inoculating the population would show North Koreans that, like in China, the regime’s zero-Covid policy is a miserable failure,” Go said.

“They worry about the stability of the regime and the health of the top leadership, which are closely linked. They want to prevent the public from panicking as it could lead to a loss of social control.

Town added that it was “a stretch to say that the North Korean government doesn’t care about the needs of the people at all. But there is a hierarchy, and the regime and the elites come first.

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