Seoul, South Korea — North Korea on Thursday reported a new “epidemic” of a bowel disease, an unusual announcement from the mysterious country already grappling with a COVID-19 outbreak and severe economic turmoil.
It’s unclear how many people are infected in the southwestern city of Haeju, in what the official Korea Central News Agency described as an “acute enteric epidemic.”
The agency didn’t name the disease, but enteric refers to intestinal diseases like typhoid, dysentery, and cholera that are caused by germs in contaminated food or water, or contact with the feces of infected people. Such diseases are routinely found in North Korea, which lacks water treatment facilities and has largely collapsed the public health system for decades.
Some observers said the purpose of the announcement was not so much to report the infections themselves as to mention that leader Kim Jong Un had donated medicines from his personal stash – an apparent attempt to polish his image at a moment of extreme need.
The official Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim donated medicine from his family’s reserves. The country’s main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, ran a front-page photo of Kim and his wife Ri Sol Ju looking at saline solutions and medicines that the newspaper said they had donated.
In a country where power is concentrated in the hands of a small ruling elite and hospitals often don’t lack even basic supplies, defectors say it’s common for whoever can have stocks of medicines in their homes — and senior ones Officials can usually store more supplies than ordinary citizens. Observers also said the donated drug may have simply come from government storage facilities, but was distributed on Kim’s behalf.
“Outbreaks of measles or typhoid are not uncommon in North Korea. I think it’s true that an infectious disease is breaking out there, but North Korea is using this as an opportunity to emphasize that Kim cares about his people,” said Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website focusing on health issues in North Korea. “So it’s more of a political message than a medical one.”
Over the past month, North Korea has reported an increasing number of patients with fever. At the time, South Korea’s intelligence agency said that “a significant number” of cases involved measles, typhoid and whooping cough.
KCNA said Thursday more than 4.5 million of the country’s 26 million people have contracted an unidentified fever and 73 have died. The country, which appears to be short of coronavirus testing kits, has identified just a fraction of those as confirmed COVID-19 cases. Many foreign experts question the death toll in the north, saying it is likely underreported to protect Kim from political harm.
North Korea recently claimed it was making progress in slowing the spread of COVID-19 among the unvaccinated population, although a senior World Health Organization official said this month the agency believes the outbreak is getting worse.
During a ruling party conference last week, Kim claimed the pandemic situation had passed the stage of a “serious crisis”. But the country still maintains heightened restrictions. Some outside experts said the measures would further weigh on the country’s already struggling economy. ongoing pandemic-related border closures and UN sanctions.
Late Thursday, the South Korean Unification Ministry renewed its offer of assistance on health issues. After the North first announced the outbreak of COVID-19, South Korea and the United States offered to send vaccines and other medical supplies, but the North has not responded.