The story so far: After reportedly remaining “COVID-free” since the start of the global pandemic, North Korea last week confirmed its first case. On May 12, the North Korean administration said the highly transmissible Omicron variant was detected in the country as thousands reported ill due to a fast-spreading fever. In an immediate response to what North Korea termed was the “state’s most serious emergency”, its leader Kim Jong Un imposed a nationwide lockdown.
Five days since its first public admission, the country has reported around 15 lakh suspected COVID-19 cases, while at least 56 people have died. Saying that the outbreak has pushed North Korea into “great turmoil”, Mr. Kim Jong Un has called for an all-out battle to overcome the virus. On May 16, Mr. Kim ordered the immediate deployment of the military to stabilise the supply of COVID-19 medicines in the capital, Pyongyang.
A look at what is happening in North Korea.
How North Korea remained ‘COVID-free’
North Korea took several precautionary steps to stay safe from the virus soon after its neighbouring country China reported a cluster of cases in 2019. The North Korean administration closed international borders, suspended travel between the provinces and scaled down cross-border trade for two years.
In July 2020, a man who had defected to South Korea in 2017 returned to Kaesong—a North Korean border town—with COVID-19 symptoms. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un imposed a three-week lockdown in the town and declared an emergency. A few months later, the administration issued shoot-to-kill orders to prevent any trespassers from crossing its borders.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), no coronavirus case was recorded in the North Korean population of 26 million till March 2022. Citing its COVID-free status and claiming that its socialist system was protecting its population from “a malicious virus”, North Korea even declined vaccine supplies, leaving its population exposed to the risk of infection.
Decoding the severity of the situation
On May 12, the Chinese state television claimed that North Korea had imposed a stay-at-home order since May 10 after some people reported “suspected flu symptoms”. State media reports stated that a “fever” had been spreading “explosively” across the country since late April. They, however, did not identify the cause of the fever. State news agency KCNA (Korean Central News Agency) said samples taken on May 8 from some people experiencing fever in the capital Pyongyang showed that they were infected with the Omicron variant. It called the outbreak the state’s “most serious emergency.” Since then, the country has been scrambling to slow the spread of COVID-19 across its unvaccinated population.
Five days since its first public admission, North Korea has reported a total of 14.8 lakh suspected cases of COVID-19. State media, however, is yet to specify the number of fever cases that are COVID-related infections. Among the fatalities, however, North Korea has identified only one as a COVID-19 case officially so far.
May 13: A day after the imposition of a lockdown, North Korea said six people had died and 3.5 lakh were treated for fever. One of the six people who died was infected with the omicron variant, KCNA confirmed. Of the 3.5 lakh people who developed fevers since late April, 1.62 lakh recovered, KCNA said. It said 18,000 people were newly found with fever symptoms, and 1.87 lakh were isolated for treatment.
May 14: North Korea reported 21 new deaths and 1,74,440 more people with fever symptoms, taking the overall tally to 27 deaths and 5.24 lakh cases. KCNA said 2.43 lakh people had recovered while 2.8 lakh remained in isolation. State media, however, didn’t specify if all cases of fever and deaths were COVID-related infections.
May 15: The state media announced that 2,96,180 more people had come down with fever symptoms, while 15 more had died.
May 16: Eight more people died and an additional 3,92,920 more were found to have feverish symptoms, taking the death toll to 50 and illnesses to more than 1.2 million (12.1 lakh).
May 17: North Korea reported another large jump in illnesses believed to be COVID-19. At least 2,69,510 more people were found with fevers and six people died. With this, North Korea’s death toll has climbed to 56. Over 6.63 lakh were in quarantine.
As per Kim Sin Gon, a professor at Seoul’s Korea University College of Medicine, most with fever have likely contracted the virus. The reason, he says, is the limiting capacity of North Korea whose population remains unvaccinated.
Another professor at Seoul University, Yang Moo Jin, told AP that the real number of COVID-19 infections in North Korea is likely at least three times larger than the country’s tally because of underreporting, crippling health care system and poorly computerised administrative networks.
Have authorities identified the source?
North Korea has not reported the possible source of the COVID-19 outbreak so far. A military parade held in Pyongyang on April 25 is suspected as one of the reasons for the outbreak. The massive rally that saw Kim Jong Un showcasing the military capabilities of the country’s nuclear programme was attended by tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians.
Some suspect that the Omicron variant could have entered North Korea from China. Earlier this year, the country reopened railroad freight traffic between its border town of Sinuiju and China’s Dandong after the route remained shut for over two years. China, however, closed it in April following an outbreak in Liaoning province, which borders North Korea.
Measures taken to tackle the outbreak
In response to the “explosive” situation, Mr. Kim Jong Un imposed a “strict” nationwide lockdown. He also asked for the mobilisation of emergency reserve medical supplies to control the spread in the country. All provinces, cities have been totally locked down and working units, production units and residential units closed from each other, KCNA said. Also, 1.3 million people have been reportedly engaged to examine and treat sick people, while all those with fevers are put in quarantine.
Mr. Kim Jong Un had earlier pulled up epidemic prevention departments for their “carelessness and inefficiency” during an emergency meeting of the ruling party called to discuss ways to tackle the situation. He was shown on television wearing a face mask for the first time since the pandemic began. Following the meeting, state news agency KCNA said the country was taking “swift state emergency measures” to control the epidemic. Here is what else was decided in the meeting:
- Mr. Kim Jong Un asked health workers to step up disinfection efforts at offices and homes. He said that most transmissions were occurring within communities isolated from one another. Workplaces, he said, should be isolated by units to block the virus from spreading.
- He directed officials not to halt economic activities. Construction, agricultural and other scheduled state projects to continue. He also ordered officials to avoid any lapse in security. Hours after North Korea’s sudden admission, the country test-fired three short-range ballistic missiles toward the sea.
- The Politburo issued an emergency order to immediately release and quickly distribute state medicine reserves and for pharmacies to remain open 24 hours. Mr. Kim Jong Un, meanwhile, said he was donating some of his private medicine supplies to help the anti-virus campaign.
Mr. Kim Jong Un chaired another Politburo meeting on May 15 where he came down heavily on the government and health officials for what he called was a “botched pandemic response”. He said medicine supplies were unable to reach pharmacies in time because of “irresponsible work attitude” of officials.
What now for North Korea?
North Korea has no active vaccination programme against coronavirus. Its healthcare infrastructure features among the world’s worst.
Experts believe that if North Korea fails to immediately source medicines and vaccines against COVID-19, the country might suffer high fatalities. Harvard Medical School’s Kee Park, who has worked on health care projects in North Korea, says the country has been testing about 1,400 each week, which is not enough to survey 3,50,000 sick people. “Using a conservative case fatality rate of 1% and assuming the surge is due to an Omicron variant of COVID-19, North Korea can expect 3,500 deaths from this outbreak,” said Mr. Park.
Professor Kim Sin Gon says without support, North Korea may end up with the pandemic’s worst death and infection rates in the world for its population size. “North Korea has many vulnerable people who don’t have strong immune systems. Its official inoculation rate is zero and it has no COVID-19 treatment pills,” he says.
Another professor, Jung Jae Hun, says the Omicron variant resulting in significantly fewer hospitalisations is mostly because of vaccinations, use of COVID-19 antiviral pills and prior exposure to the virus. None of this applies to North Korea, the professor adds.
The outbreak is also likely to deepen a food crisis in a country that is battling a fragile economy. Trade has slowed due to lockdowns, raising concerns about food shortages.
Status of vaccination in North Korea
According to the WHO, North Korea is one of only two countries that has not begun a COVID-19 vaccination drive. Even as the virus wreaked havoc, the country kept its border shut and refused any international help with vaccinations. In July 2021, North Korea rejected a shipment of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine organised under the global COVAX distribution scheme. A few months later, it again rejected three million COVID-19 vaccine doses of China’s Sinovac Biotech. “Send it to those who need it,” it said. It is speculated that North Korea rejected vaccines since it worried about possible side effects and international monitoring requirements that could come with the shots.
Its public declaration of a COVID-19 outbreak has left many surprised. Experts say this rare admission could be North Korea’s cry for help in the form of vaccines. Some experts say it is too late to inoculate the entire population. Offering limited supplies of vaccines to reduce deaths among high-risk group could save lives and control the spread of the virus, they state.
While the White House has said the United States does not plan to share its vaccine supplies with North Korea, South Korea has extended all possible help. There is, however, no sign yet that the North Korean administration is moving to procure vaccines or humanitarian aid for its exposed population.
(With inputs from agencies)