North Korea’s latest announcement underscores its vulnerability to the highly contagious BA.2 omicron subvariant, which was responsible for sharp surges of covid-19 in South Korea, the United States and elsewhere around the globe. Vaccines have been highly effective at preventing serious infections and death from omicron, but North Korea is one of the only two countries in the world without a vaccine program.
North Korea admits to coronavirus outbreak for the first time
North Korea’s Central News Agency (KCNA) said Friday that nearly 190,000 people remain in quarantine, while 162,000 of the more than 350,000 who were 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 following the announcement of the country’s first official coronavirus infection Thursday, was quoted by KCNA as admitting that the spreading infections were a “grave sign of lapses in 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 from infections. But experts say the virus was likely spreading in the country well before Pyongyang’s official announcement this week.
North Korea’s “zero covid” policy saw it maintain stringent quarantine measures and a closed border over the past two years, which resulted in health and food crises, according to a report by a panel of experts convened by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
It dramatically reduced land-based trade along its border with China, its biggest trading partner, dramatically affecting the availability of food, supplies and cash. North Korea has banned diplomats, tourists or humanitarian aid groups from entering the country.
“Most North Koreans are chronically malnourished and unvaccinated, there are barely any medicines left in the country, and the health infrastructure is incapable of dealing with this pandemic,” said Lina Yoon, senior Korean researcher at Human Rights Watch.
North Korea, facing first covid outbreak, remains one of two countries without any vaccines
Pyongyang also has repeatedly rebuffed Seoul’s offers of help. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol on Friday announced new plans to provide vaccine and medical aid to North Korea, his spokeswoman Kang In-sun said. The planned aid is not made at a request of North Korea, Yoon’s office said, adding that it will seek consultations with the North on how to deliver it.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Thursday that it is prepared to “go all out to provide support and assistance to the DPRK in fighting the virus,” though it is unclear whether North Korea would accept aid along the border because of its fears of the virus transmitting 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.
“For the time being, however, North Korea is not expected to accept coronavirus aid from the outside, especially the Western world,” he said.
Despite the outbreak, North Korea is unlikely to give up 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 slammed the tests in a Thursday statement, 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.
Michelle Ye Hee Lee in Tokyo contributed reporting.