On Friday, North Korea announced its first Covid-19 fatality, stating fever was spreading “explosively” across the country and tens of thousands of people were being segregated and treated after becoming ill.
The nuclear-armed government just disclosed its first Covid instances on Thursday, declaring a “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system” after ill patients in Pyongyang tested positive for Omicron.
North Korea has been subjected to a strict coronavirus control since the epidemic began in 2020, but with major Omicron outbreaks in all neighbouring nations, scientists predicted it was only a matter of time until Covid infiltrated.
“A fever with no known origin has swept the country since late April,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
“Six people died (one of them tested positive for the BA.2 sub-variant of Omicron,” the report continued.
Experts predict North Korea’s decrepit health infrastructure would struggle to deal with a significant epidemic if its 25 million people were not immunised against Covid.
“On May 12 alone, almost 18,000 people were diagnosed with fever across the country, and up to 187,800 people were currently being separated and treated,” according to KCNA.
Leader Kim Jong Un, who was shown wearing a mask on public television for the first time, presided over an emergency Politburo meeting on Thursday and ordered statewide lockdowns in an attempt to stem the spread of the illness.
Kim, according to KCNA, visited the state emergency epidemic prevention centre on Friday and “learned about the widespread of Covid-19.”
“It is the most crucial problem and highest job confronting party to quickly reverse the urgent public health crisis scenario,” KCNA concluded.
According to Cheong Seong-Chang of the Sejong Institute, the big national epidemic is most likely connected to a massive military parade staged in Pyongyang on April 25.
“Holding a military parade in the front of a big audience while Omicron was raging in neighbouring China shows Pyongyang’s overconfidence in their ability to battle and prevent the virus,” he told AFP.
He predicted that the fast spread of Omicron would cause “serious upheaval” in North Korea, citing the country’s recent reporting of over 20,000 cases in a single day.
“If the death toll from Omicron rises, Pyongyang may have to seek Chinese help,” he continued.
Beijing, Pyongyang’s single major friend and supporter, stated on Thursday that it is prepared to assist North Korea with the Covid-19 epidemic.
However, China, the world’s only major economy that still has a zero-Covid policy, is dealing with various Omicron outbreaks, with certain major cities, including financial capital Shanghai, under tight stay-at-home orders.
North Korea has previously rejected offers of Covid vaccinations from both China and the World Health Organization’s Covax programme.
Kim stated on Friday that the fever outbreak “shows that there is a weak area in the epidemic prevention system,” and he urged for more lockdowns.
According to KCNA, Kim “stressed that it is the top priority to stop the virus’s spread by vigorously closing down regions and isolating and treating those with fever responsibly.”
Analysts believe that China’s experience with Omicron suggests that lockdowns would fail, but with no antiviral therapy or immunizations, North Korea has few other choices.
Distraction from nuclear weapons
North Korea conducted three short-range ballistic missile tests, according to Seoul, only days after confirming their first instances of Covid.
After a meeting, South Korean President Yoon Suk-security Yeol’s office criticised the North’s “continued provocations with a ballistic missile launch despite the spread of coronavirus.”
Following the failure of high-level discussions in 2019, North Korea has increased its weapons testing, launching a flurry of launches this year, including intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Satellite data suggests North Korea is ready to conduct a nuclear test, which the US has warned may happen as soon as this month.
Some observers suggested that if Pyongyang requires help – vaccinations and medicine – the test should be postponed, while others worried that the Covid-19 outbreak may speed things up.
“A nuclear test would be an ideal method to divert public attention away from the pandemic,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at North Korea Studies University, told AFP.