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What is hidden behind North Korea’s acceptance of a COVID-19 explosion?




North Korea spent two and a half years rejecting foreign offers of vaccines and insisting that its superior socialist system was protecting its 26 million people from “a malicious virus” that had killed millions worldwide.

So the surprise acceptance this week of domestic COVID-19 cases has left many foreigners wondering how bad things really are.

And there are growing concerns that it could trigger a major humanitarian crisis in a country with one of the worst public medical infrastructures in the world.

Because the North has been tightly closed since the beginning of 2020, with no journalists, aid workers or diplomats coming in regularly, reading the situation is something of a guesswork game.

The North has been vague with its descriptions in the state media of widespread fever.

But there are some troubling facts: no vaccine reported, very limited testing ability, a terrible medical system, and widespread poverty.

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North Korea acknowledges difficulty in curbing its COVID-19 explosion.

Without immediate deliveries of foreign aid, some experts say North Korea could face massive death rates and infections.

Others, however, say North Korea is using its acceptance of an outbreak to rally the public against the virus and increase its control over its people.

Here’s a look at what a jam can look like in one of the most closed nations in the world.

What is known about the explosion?

North Korea announced on Thursday that an unspecified number of people in Pyongyang tested positive for the Omicron variant. He called the blast “the state’s most serious emergency.”

People watch a TV screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
Kim Jong Un’s regime has long maintained its communist system that has protected North Koreans from the virus.(AP: Ahn Young-joon)

However, it was unclear about the scope and the Northern media used vague language.

State media reports Friday said a “fever” has been spreading “explosively” since late April, leaving six dead, 350,000 sick and 187,800 quarantined.

They said one of the dead was diagnosed with the Omicron variant.

Later on Saturday, North Korea reported 21 new deaths and 174,440 other people with fever symptoms.

As of Sunday, North Korea has reported a total of 42 deaths and 820,620 suspected cases, with 324,550 people under medical care.

Kim Sin-gon, a professor at Seoul Korea University College of Medicine, said most people with fever were infected with the virus. He said North Korea has a limited number of test kits for COVID-19.

The World Health Organization says North Korea has reported tests on 64,200 people since the pandemic began, an extremely low figure compared to other countries. The number of COVID-19 tests in South Korea is about 172 million.

North Korea’s proliferation could be linked to a massive military parade on April 25, where leader Kim Jong Un spoke about his nuclear weapons in front of tens of thousands of Pyongyang residents and troops.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un greets soldiers during a parade
Kim Jong Un has ordered officials to continue with state projects, including launching missiles.(Reuters: KCNA)

The Omicron virus may have entered North Korea over its northern border with China when it reopened rail freight traffic between the two countries in January.

Since then, the border has been closed.

What are the challenges?

The spread can be devastating because the people of North Korea remain largely unvaccinated and it suffers from a chronic shortage of medicines and medical equipment.

“North Korea has a lot of vulnerable people who do not have a strong immune system. Its official vaccination rate is zero and there are no pills to treat COVID-19,” Professor Kimsaid said.

“North Korea could end up with the worst death rate and pandemic infection in the world for its population size” without outside support, he added.

A worker wearing a face mask wipes a counter in a convenience store
North Korea has spent most of the pandemic rejecting foreign offers of vaccines.(AP: Cha Song Ho / File)

In many advanced countries, Omicron has resulted in far fewer hospitalizations and deaths than previous coronavirus variants.

But this is mainly due to vaccinations, use of COVID-19 antiviral pills, effective treatment in intensive care units and populations that have been previously exposed to the virus.




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