SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has blasted officials over slow shipments of medicines and ordered his military to respond to the mounting but largely undiagnosed COVID-19 crisis, which has sickened 1.2 million people with a fever in a matter of days Killed 50 people, state media said on Monday.
More than 564,860 people are in quarantine due to the fever, which has been spreading rapidly among people in and around the capital Pyongyang since late April. Eight more deaths and 392,920 new fevers detected were reported Monday, the North’s emergency antivirus headquarters said.
State media did not say how many have been confirmed as COVID-19, but North Korea is said to have insufficient test supplies to confirm large numbers of coronavirus infections and relies mainly on isolating people with symptoms in emergency shelters.
Failure to slow the virus could have dire consequences for North Korea given its broken health system and its 26 million people believed to be unvaccinated, malnourished and suffering from other conditions of poverty.
Kim slammed government and health officials for what he described as a botched pandemic response during a meeting of the ruling party’s Politburo on Sunday, saying drug stocks were not being distributed to pharmacies in a timely manner because of their “irresponsible work ethic” and lack of organization The shared official Korean Central News Agency from North with.
The Politburo had issued an emergency order to immediately release and quickly distribute state drug reserves and open pharmacies for 24-hour shifts, but Kim said such moves are not being properly implemented. Kim ordered his military’s medical units to get involved in stabilizing drug supplies in Pyongyang, KCNA said.
After the meeting, Kim and members of the Politburo conducted on-site inspections at pharmacies in a district in Pyongyang, where Kim complained that most stores were in poor condition and lacked storage facilities, and criticized some pharmacists for not wearing proper white coats carried.
North Korea acknowledged a COVID-19 outbreak for the first time last Thursday and said an unspecified number of people had tested positive for the Omicron variant. It implemented a lockdown and Kim ordered public health officials, teachers and others to identify people with fevers so they could be quarantined.
North Korea’s claim of a perfect record in containing the virus for 2 1/2 years has been widely questioned. But its extremely strict border closures, large-scale quarantines and propaganda emphasizing antivirus controls as a matter of “national existence” may have prevented a major outbreak so far.
It’s not clear if North Korea’s urgent news of its outbreak indicates a willingness to receive outside help.
The country has shunned millions of vaccine doses offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, likely because they are subject to international surveillance requirements.
South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol said in parliament on Monday that the south is ready to send vaccines, medicines, equipment and health workers to the north if it is willing to accept. South Korean officials say Pyongyang has not yet made a request for Seoul’s help.
Inter-Korean relations have deteriorated since 2019 after major US-North Korea negotiations collapsed over disagreements over the North’s nuclear arsenal and US-led sanctions.
Kim has previously praised China’s response to the pandemic and urged its officials to learn from it, which may indicate North Korea is more willing to accept help from its key ally. Chinese officials said last week that Beijing was ready to offer assistance, but they had no information about such a request.
Even as he called for a lockdown of cities and counties to slow the spread of COVID-19, Kim also stressed that the country’s economic goals should be met, which likely means large groups will continue to gather at agricultural, industrial and construction sites will gather.
While accelerating his missile tests at Brinkmanship to pressure Washington for economic and security concessions, Kim has grappled with domestic challenges and a pandemic-stricken economy, propelling him to power at what may be the most difficult moment of his decade.
State media in recent weeks have highlighted agricultural campaigns to protect crops amid a drought during the rice-growing season, a worrying development in a country plagued by chronic food shortages. Kim is also keen to meet his stated goals in a five-year national development plan announced in early 2021 after showing unusual candor by acknowledging that his previous economic plans were not working.