North Korea reports 21 new deaths as it battles Covid-19 outbreak

People watching a TV screen showing a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (right) during a news programme at a train station in Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, May 14, 2022. North Korea on Saturday reported 21 new deaths and 174,440 more people with fever symptoms as the country scrambles to slow the spread of Covid-19 across its unvaccinated population. - AP

SEOUL, May 14, 2022 (AFP): North Korea announced 21 new "fever" deaths Saturday and said more than half a million people had been sickened nationwide, two days after confirming its first-ever cases of Covid-19.

Despite activating its "maximum emergency quarantine system" to slow the spread of disease through its unvaccinated population, North Korea is reporting tens of thousands of new cases daily.

On Friday alone, "over 174,440 persons had fever, at least 81 430 were fully recovered and 21 died in the country," the official Korean Central News Agency reported.

North Korea confirmed Thursday that the highly-contagious Omicron variant had been detected in the capital Pyongyang, with leader Kim Jong Un ordering nationwide lockdowns.

It was the North's first official confirmation of Covid cases and marked the failure of a two year long coronavirus blockade maintained at great economic cost since the start of the pandemic.

"The number of fevered persons totalized from late April to May 13 is over 524,440," KCNA said, with 27 deaths total.

The report did not specify whether the new cases and deaths had all tested positive for Covid-19, but experts say the country will struggle to test and diagnose on this scale.

"It's not a stretch to consider these 'fever' cases to all be Covid-19, given the North's lack of testing capacity," said Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute.

"The actual number of Covid cases could be higher than the fever figures due to many asymptomatic cases," he said, adding that the pace of infection was growing "very fast".

- 'Great upheaval' -

North Korea held its second Politburo meeting this week, overseen by leader Kim Jong Un, KCNA reported.

"The spread of malignant disease comes to be a great upheaval in our country since the founding of the DPRK along with the worldwide spread of Covid-19," he said, referring to North Korea by its official name.

The meeting of the country's top officials discussed "supplying reserve medicines" and other ways of "minimizing the losses in human lives", KCNA said.

North Korea has a crumbling health system -- one of the worst in the world -- and lacks essential medicines and equipment, experts say.

With no Covid vaccines, antiviral treatment drugs or mass testing capacity, North Korea will struggle to handle a massive outbreak, experts warn.

- China Model -

Kim said Saturday that North Korea would follow the Chinese model of disease management.

"It is good to actively learn from the advanced and rich anti-epidemic successes and experience already gained by the Chinese party and people in the struggle against malicious epidemic," he said, KCNA reported.

China, the world's only major economy to still maintain a zero-Covid policy, is currently battling multiple Omicron outbreaks -- with some major cities, including financial hub Shanghai, under stay-at-home orders.

North Korea has previously turned down offers of Covid vaccines from China, as well as from the World Health Organization's Covax scheme.

Beijing said Thursday it would be willing to help Pyongyang, and South Korea also announced Friday it could send vaccines to the North -- if Kim's regime would accept them.

Kim's comments suggest the North "will adopt Chinese-style anti-virus response of regional lockdowns," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

They also indicate Kim "will try getting supplies from China, which has also publicly stated its willingness to provide preventive assistance to the North."

- Nuclear activity -

Despite its Covid outbreak, new satellite imagery indicates that North Korea has resumed construction at a long-dormant nuclear reactor.

"I can't tell you when the reactor will be ready to go, but it is about 10x larger than the existing reactor at Yongbyon," Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute for International Studies wrote in a Twitter thread Saturday.

As such, it would produce ten times more plutonium for nuclear weapons, he said, adding: "This would make good on Kim's pledge to increase the number of nuclear weapons."

The United States and South Korea have warned that Kim is preparing to conduct another nuclear test -- which would be the regime's seventh -- and that it could come any day now.

Analysts have warned Kim could speed up his nuclear test plans in a bid to "distract" North Korea's population from a disastrous Covid-19 outbreak. - AFP

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