North Korea reports first Covid deaths amid ‘explosive’ outbreak

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SEOUL (AP) — North Korea announced an “explosive” coronavirus outbreak on Friday, with six deaths and 350,000 potential cases across the country since April, giving an idea of ​​how quickly the virus could spread within the country. a country that has not yet immunized its population.

Just a day after the country admitted that Covid had finally caught up with it, state media has called the outbreak a “public health crisis”, although its scope remains unclear. North Korea’s low immunity to the virus and poor health care infrastructure have raised concerns among experts that it could become an epicenter for new variants.

North Korea’s latest announcement underscores its vulnerability to the highly contagious BA.2 omicron subvariant, which has been responsible for sharp increases in the virus in South Korea, the United States and elsewhere. Vaccines have been highly effective in preventing serious infections and deaths from omicron, but North Korea is one of only two countries without a vaccine program. The other is Eritrea.

North Korea admits to coronavirus outbreak for the first time

The North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Friday that nearly 190,000 people remain in quarantine, while 162,000 of the more than 350,000 who had fever symptoms have recovered. The agency said one of the six people who died had tested positive for BA.2.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who ordered a nationwide lockdown following the announcement of the country’s first official coronavirus case on Thursday, was quoted by KCNA as saying the spread of infections was a “serious sign of flaws in our anti-epidemic system.” . The authoritarian leader appeared in public wearing a mask for the first time on Thursday.

For more than two years, as the pandemic swept across the globe, North Korea had maintained that it was infection-free. But experts say the virus was likely spreading in the country long before Pyongyang’s official announcement this week.

North Korea’s “Covid Zero” policy included strict quarantine measures and a closed border in the past two years, resulting in health and food crises, according to a report by an expert panel convened by the Center for Strategic Studies. and International based in Washington. .

It slashed land trade along its border with China, its biggest trading partner, restricting the availability of food, supplies and cash. North Korea has also banned diplomats, tourists or aid groups from entering the country.

“Most North Koreans are chronically malnourished and unvaccinated, there are hardly any medicines left in the country, and the health infrastructure is unable to cope with this pandemic,” said Lina Yoon, senior Korea researcher at Human Rights Watch.

North Korea, facing the first covid outbreak, remains one of two countries without vaccines

Pyongyang has also repeatedly rejected offers of help from Seoul. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol announced plans on Friday to provide vaccines and medical aid to North Korea, spokeswoman Kang In-sun said. North Korea did not request the aid, Yoon’s office said, adding that it will seek consultations with the North on how to deliver it.

China’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that it is prepared to “do all it can to provide support and assistance to the DPRK in fighting the virus,” though it is unclear if North Korea would accept help along the way. border because of their fears that the virus will spread. through shipments from China.

Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea analyst at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said the omicron variant will cause “chaos” in North Korea for up to a year.

“At the moment, however, North Korea is not expected to accept coronavirus aid from abroad, especially from the Western world,” he said.

Despite the outbreak, North Korea is unlikely to give up on its plans to test missiles and nuclear weapons, which can be used to boost public morale amid a health crisis, Cheong said.

On Thursday, hours after declaring its first coronavirus outbreak, North Korea fired three short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast, according to the South Korean military.

Seoul’s National Security Office criticized the tests in a statement Thursday, saying North Korea “has turned a blind eye to the lives and safety of its people and continues ballistic missile provocations” despite rapid spread of the virus.

Michelle Ye Hee Lee in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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