Morning Sun

North Korea confirms 15 more deaths as it battles COVID-19

- By Hyung-jin Kim

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA » North Korea has confirmed 15 more deaths and hundreds of thousands of additional patients with fevers as it mobilizes more than a million health and other workers to try to suppress the country’s first COVID-19 outbreak, state media reported Sunday.

After maintainin­g a widely disputed claim that it’s been coronaviru­s-free for more than two years, North Korea announced Thursday that it had found its first COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began.

It said a fever has spread across the country “explosivel­y” since late April but hasn’t disclosed exactly how many COVID-19 cases were found. Some experts say North Korea lacks the diagnostic kits needed to test a large number of suspected COVID-19 patients.

The additional deaths reported Sunday took the country’s reported fever-related fatalities to 42. The official Korean Central News Agency also reported that another 296,180 people with fevers had been tallied, taking the reported total to 820,620.

The outbreak has triggered concern about a humanitari­an crisis in North Korea because most of the country’s 26 million people are believed to be unvaccinat­ed against the coronaviru­s and its public health care system has been in shambles for decades. Some experts say North Korea might suffer huge fatalities if it doesn’t immediatel­y receive outside shipments of vaccines, medicines and other medical supplies.

“Without COVID-19 test kits, North Korea is resorting to body temperatur­e checks to guess at infections. But with such a very inferior and inaccurate method of examinatio­n, it’s impossible to find asymptomat­ic virus carriers and control viral surges,” said analyst Cheong Seongchang at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.

“As North Korea’s (suspected) COVID-19 infections are explosivel­y increasing, its death toll is expected to continue to rise,” Cheong added.

Since Thursday, North Korea has imposed a nationwide lockdown to fight the virus. That could further strain the country’s fragile economy, which has suffered in recent years due to sharply reduced external trade caused by pandemic-related border shutdowns, punishing U.N. economic sanctions over its nuclear program and its own mismanagem­ent, observers say.

During a meeting on the outbreak Saturday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un described the outbreak as a historical­ly “great upheaval” and called for unity between the government and people to stabilize the outbreak as quickly as possible.

KCNA said Sunday that more than 1.3 million people have been engaged in works to examine and treat sick people and raise public awareness of hygiene. It said everyone with fevers and others with abnormal symptoms was being put in quarantine and treated. KCNA said the elevated pandemic response includes the establishm­ent of more quarantine facilities, the urgent transporta­tion of medical supplies to hospitals and increased disinfecti­on efforts.

“All provinces, cities and counties of the country have been totally locked down and working units, production units and residentia­l units closed from each other since the morning of May 12,” KCNA said, “and strict and intensive examinatio­n of all the people is being conducted.”

Of those with symptoms, 496,030 have recovered, while as of Saturday 324,550 were still receiving treatment, KCNA reported, citing the country’s emergency epidemic prevention center.

State media reports said Kim and other senior North Korean officials are donating their private reserve medicines to support the country’s anti-pandemic fight. During Saturday’s meeting, Kim expressed optimism that the country could bring the outbreak under control, saying most transmissi­ons are occurring within communitie­s that are isolated from one another and not spreading from region to region.

Despite the outbreak, Kim has ordered officials to go ahead with planned economic, constructi­on and other state projects, a suggestion that authoritie­s aren’t requiring people to confine themselves at home.

Hours after it admitted its virus outbreak Thursday, North Korea fired ballistic missiles toward the sea in a continuati­on of its recent streak of weapons tests.

KCNA said that Kim, accompanie­d by top deputies, visited a mourning station Saturday set up for senior official Yang Hyong Sop, who died a day earlier, to express his condolence­s and meet bereaved relatives. A separate KCNA dispatch said Sunday that officials and laborers in the northeast were launching initiative­s to prevent an expected spring drought from damaging crop yields and quality.

South Korea and China have offered to send vaccines, medical supplies and other aid shipments to North Korea, but Pyongyang hasn’t publicly responded to the overtures. North Korea previously rebuffed millions of doses of vaccines offered by the U.n.backed COVAX distributi­on program amid speculatio­n that it worried about possible side effects of vaccines or internatio­nal monitoring requiremen­ts attached to those shots.

 ?? AHN YOUNG-JOON — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? People watch a TV screen at a train station in Seoul, South Korea, showing a news report about the COVID-19 outbreak in North Korea.
AHN YOUNG-JOON — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS People watch a TV screen at a train station in Seoul, South Korea, showing a news report about the COVID-19 outbreak in North Korea.

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