SEOUL – North Korea said Friday that nearly 10% of its 26 million people have fallen ill and 65 people have died amid its first COVID-19 outbreak, as outside experts question the validity of its reported fatalities and worry about a possible humanitarian crisis.
After admitting the omicron outbreak last week following more than two years of claiming to be coronavirus-free, North Korea has said an unidentified fever has been explosively spreading across the country since late April. Its anti-epidemic center has since released fever tallies each morning via state media, but they don’t include any COVID-19 figures.
Some observers say North Korea was likely forced to acknowledge the COVID-19 outbreak because it couldn't hide the highly contagious viral spread among its people and suffer possible public discontent with leader Kim Jong Un. They believe North Korean authorities are underreporting mortalities to try to show that its pandemic response is effective, while the country lacks test kits to confirm a large number of virus cases.
“It’s true that there has been a hole in its 2 1/2 years of pandemic fighting,” said Kwak Gil Sup, head of One Korea Center, a website specializing in North Korea affairs. “But there is a saying that North Korea is ’a theater state,' and I think they are massaging COVID-19 statistics.”
Kwak said North Korea is likely partly using the outbreak as a propaganda tool to show that it is overcoming the pandemic with Kim’s leadership. But the country has “a Plan B” and “a Plan C” to seek Chinese and other foreign aid if the pandemic gets out of hand, he said.
On Friday, the North’s state emergency epidemic prevention headquarters said 263,370 more people had feverish symptoms and two more people died, bringing the total fever cases to 2.24 million and fatalities to 65. They said 754,810 people remain quarantined, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
The outbreak likely originated from an April 25 military parade in Pyongyang that Kim organized to show off his new missiles and loyal troops. The parade and other related festivals, which marked North Korea’s army foundation anniversary, drew tens of thousands of people and soldiers from Pyongyang and other parts of the country, who returned home after the events.
South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers Thursday that “a considerable number” of the fever cases reported by North Korea include people sick with waterborne diseases like measles, typhoid and pertussis.
The National Intelligence Service assessed that those diseases had already been spreading across North Korea even before COVID-19 broke out, according to Ha Tae-keung, a lawmaker who attended a private NIS briefing. Ha cited the NIS as saying the waterborne diseases were spreading due to shortages of medicines and medical supplies in the wake of the North’s previous long-running anti-pandemic steps.
“(The NIS) said it doesn’t know exactly what percentage of the fever cases are coronavirus patients. It said North Korea lacks coronavirus diagnostic kits but appears to have sufficient thermometers,” Ha said.
The NIS has a spotty record in confirming developments in North Korea. Some civilian medical experts earlier said they believed most of the fever cases announced by North Korea were COVID-19.
On Monday, when the North's fever cases had already surpassed 1.2 million, Ryu Yong Chol, an official at Pyongyang’s anti-virus headquarters, said on state TV that the government had detected 168 COVID-19 cases as of last Saturday. There have been no updates on the North’s virus cases since then.
Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website focusing on health issues in North Korea, said Pyongyang had likely determined its omicron outbreak won’t cause catastrophic fatalities but disclosed it to prevent potential public unrest. He said North Korea’s increased anti-virus measures are partly meant to solidify its control of a public tired of previous restrictions and other difficulties.
“North Korea’s pandemic response isn’t completely staged as people are dying. But it’s obvious that its leadership’s political intentions have been added there,” Ahn said. “One day, they’ll proclaim their victory over COVID-19 in a colorful manner.”
North Korea’s public medical system remains in shambles, and experts say the country could suffer mass pandemic fatalities if it doesn’t receive outside aid shipments. They say the country’s elevated restrictions on movement and quarantine rules may also worsen its food insecurity.
The NIS said North Korea intends to overcome the pandemic with assistance from its main ally, China, according to Ha and Kim Byung-kee, another lawmaker who was briefed by the spy service. During an anti-virus meeting Saturday, Kim said his country faces “a great upheaval” and that officials must study how China and other nations have handled the pandemic.
Some media reports said North Korea already sent planes to China to bring back emergency supplies earlier this week, but the South Korean government said it couldn’t confirm the reports. South Korea said it and the United States have offered to ship vaccines, medicines and other medical supplies to North Korea, but the North hasn’t responded.