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North Korea reports 6 deaths after admitting COVID-19 outbreak

In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, top, visits state emergency epidemic prevention headquarters in North Korea Thursday, May 12, 2022.
AP
In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, top, visits state emergency epidemic prevention headquarters in North Korea Thursday, May 12, 2022.

Updated May 13, 2022 at 12:15 AM ET

SEOUL, South Korea — Six people have died and 350,000 have been treated for a fever that has spread "explosively" across North Korea, state media said Friday, a day after acknowledging a COVID-19 outbreak for the first time in the pandemic.

North Korea likely doesn't have sufficient COVID-19 tests and other medical equipment and said it didn't know the case of the mass fevers. But a big COVID-19 outbreak could be devastating in a country with a broken health care system and an unvaccinated, malnourished population.

The North's official Korean Central News Agency said of the 350,000 people who developed fevers since late April, 162,200 have recovered. It said 18,000 people were newly found with fever symptoms on Thursday alone, and 187,800 people are being isolated for treatment.

One of the six people who died was confirmed infected with the omicron variant, KCNA said, but it wasn't immediately clear how many of the total illnesses were COVID-19.

North Korea imposed a nationwide lockdown Thursday after acknowledging its first COVID-19 cases. Those reports said tests from an unspecified number of people came back positive for the omicron variant.

It's possible that the spread of the virus was accelerated by a massive military parade in Pyongyang on April 25, where North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took center stage and showcased the most powerful missiles of his military nuclear program in front of tens of thousands.

Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at South Korea's Sejong Institute, said the pace of the fever's spread suggests the crisis could last months and possibly into 2023, causing major disruption in the poorly equipped country.

Some experts say the North's initial announcement communicates a willingness to receive outside aid.

The North last year shunned millions of shots offered by the U.N.-backed COVAX distribution program, including doses of AstraZeneca and China's Sinovac vaccines, possibly because of questions about their effectiveness and unwillingness to accept monitoring requirements. The country lacks the extreme-cold storage systems that are required for mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Thursday that Beijing was offering North Korea help in dealing with the outbreak.

"As its comrade, neighbor and friend, China stands ready to provide full support and assistance to the DPRK in the fight against the epidemic," Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing, using the initials for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said the South was willing to provide medical assistance and other help to North Korea based on humanitarian considerations.

KCNA said Kim was briefed about the fever outbreak when he visited the emergency epidemic prevention headquarters on Thursday and criticized officials for failing to prevent "a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system."

He said the spread of the fever has been centered around the capital Pyongyang and underscored the importance of isolating all work and residential units from one another while providing residents with every convenience during the lockdown.

"It is the most important challenge and supreme tasks facing our party to reverse the immediate public health crisis situation at an early date, restore the stability of epidemic prevention and protect the health and wellbeing of our people," KCNA quoted Kim as saying.

North Korea's claim of a perfect record in keeping out the virus for two and a half years was widely doubted. But it was believed to have avoided a huge outbreak until now, in part because it instituted strict virus controls almost from the start of the pandemic.

The strict border closures and other measures further battered an economy already damaged by decades of mismanagement and crippling U.S.-led sanctions over North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs, pushing Kim to perhaps the toughest moment of his rule.

Hours after confirming the COVID-19 outbreak Thursday, North Korea launched three short-range ballistic missiles toward the sea in what possibly was meant to be a display of its strength. It was the North's 16th round of missile launches this year.

Citing North Korea's shunning of the COVAX vaccines, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the United States supported international aid efforts but doesn't plan to share its vaccine supplies with the North.

"We do continue to support international efforts aimed at the provision of critical humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable North Koreans, and this is, of course, a broader part of the DPRK continuing to exploit its own citizens by not accepting this type of aid," Psaki said Thursday in Washington.

"It's not just vaccines. It's also a range of humanitarian assistance that could very much help the people and the country and instead they divert resources to build their unlawful nuclear and ballistic missiles programs."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press