North Korea reports first covid deaths amid ‘explosive’ outbreak

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SEOUL — North Korea announced an “explosive” coronavirus outbreak on Friday, with six dead and 350,000 infected across the country since April, giving a glimpse of how quickly the virus could spread inside its borders. a country that has not yet vaccinated its population.

Just a day after the country admitted covid-19 had finally hit it, state media called the outbreak a “public health crisis”, although the extent of it remains unclear. North Korea’s weak immunity to the virus and poor health care infrastructure have led experts to fear it could become an epicenter of new variants.

North Korea’s latest announcement highlights its vulnerability to the highly contagious BA.2 omicron subvariant, which was responsible for large outbreaks of covid-19 in South Korea, the United States and elsewhere around the world. Vaccines have been very effective in preventing serious infections and deaths from omicron, but North Korea is one of only two countries in the world without a vaccination program.

North Korea admits coronavirus outbreak for the first time

North Korea’s Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Friday nearly 190,000 people remained in quarantine, while 162,000 of the more than 350,000 people infected 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 after the country’s first official coronavirus infection was announced on Thursday, was quoted by KCNA as admitting the spread of infections was a “sign serious failure of our anti-epidemic system”. The authoritarian leader appeared in public wearing a face mask for the first time on Thursday.

For more than two years, as the pandemic raged around the world, North Korea had maintained that it was free of infections. But experts say the virus was likely spreading in the country long before Pyongyang’s official announcement this week.

North Korea’s ‘zero covid’ policy has led it to maintain strict quarantine measures and a closed border for the past two years, resulting in health and food crises, according to a report by a group panel convened by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

It has drastically reduced overland trade along its border with China, its main trading partner, significantly affecting the availability of food, supplies and money. North Korea has banned diplomats, tourists or humanitarian aid groups from entering the country.

“Most North Koreans are chronically malnourished and unvaccinated, there is almost no medicine left in the country, and the health infrastructure is unable to cope with this pandemic,” said researcher Lina Yoon. Korean senior at Human Rights Watch.

North Korea, facing the first epidemic of covid, remains one of the two countries without any vaccine

Pyongyang has also repeatedly rebuffed offers of help from Seoul. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol on Friday announced new plans to deliver vaccines and medical aid to North Korea, his spokeswoman Kang In-sun said. The planned aid is not being made at the request of North Korea, Yoon’s office said, adding that it will seek to consult with the North on how to deliver it.

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Thursday it was ready to “do all it can to provide support and assistance to the DPRK in the fight against the virus”, although it was unclear whether South Korea North would accept aid along the border due to fears of virus transmission. by shipments from China.

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

“At this time, however, North Korea should not accept coronavirus help from outside, especially the Western world,” he said.

Despite the outbreak, North Korea is unlikely to back down on its plans to test missiles and nuclear weapons, which can be used to boost public morale during 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 Bureau criticized the tests in a statement Thursday, saying North Korea had “turned a blind eye to the lives and safety of its people and continued ballistic missile provocations” despite the rapid spread of the virus. virus.

Michelle Ye Hee Lee in Tokyo contributed reporting.

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