100s of titles, one news app for just $10 a month.
Dive Deeper:
Explainer-How N.Korea's COVID-19 outbreak could ignite a major health crisis
North Korea's admission that it is battling an "explosive" COVID-19 outbreak has raised concerns that the virus could devastate a…
N.Korea reports first COVID-19 death as fever spreads 'explosively'
At least one person confirmed to have COVID-19 has died in North Korea and hundreds of thousands have shown fever…
N.Korea reports first COVID outbreak, orders lockdown in "gravest emergency"
North Korea reported its first COVID-19 outbreak on Thursday, calling it the "gravest national emergency" and ordering a national lockdown,…
North Korea reveals six deaths after admitting first Covid outbreak
Six people have died and 350,000 have been treated for a fever that has spread “explosively” across North Korea one…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
NKorea Reports More COVID Deaths, Kim Says Pandemic 'Great Turmoil'
North Korea announced 21 new "fever" deaths Saturday and said more than half a million people had been sickened nationwide,…
North Korea confirms first COVID death; 350,000 reporting ‘fever’
Experts worry North Korea’s health system will be unable to cope with spread of COVID in an unvaccinated population.
Get all your news in one place
Latest World news:
Biden tells Quad leaders Ukraine invasion a "global issue"
"We cannot let the same thing happen in the Indo-Pacific region," Japan's leader said.
Read news from The Economist, FT, Bloomberg and more, with one subscription
Learn More
Dispute over Govt Formation Looms in Lebanon
A political dispute is looming on the horizon in Lebanon over the shape of the new government. The country is…
Quad leaders meet in Japan to discuss China, Russia tensions
Leaders of US, Japan, India and Australia discuss regional security and the Russia-Ukraine war in Tokyo.
US Preparing to Deploy Monkeypox Vaccines amid More Probable Cases
The United States is preparing to give monkeypox vaccines to close contacts of people infected and to deploy treatments, with…
Claim Putin ‘survived assassination attempt’; veteran Russian diplomat quits over ‘intolerable’ Ukraine war
Russian president Vladimir Putin apparently survived an assassination attempt at the start of his invasion of Ukraine, the head of…
From analysis to good news, read the world’s best news in one place
VIDEO: War In Ukraine: Defending Troops Destroy Russian Tanks Hiding In Residents’ Gardens
Russian armored column attacks Zirkuni, a village in Kharkiv Oblast in northeastern Ukraine.
Missiles, Helicopters: 20 Countries Offer New Arms for Ukraine
Some 20 countries offered new security assistance packages for Ukraine to battle invading Russian forces in a meeting of allies…

How North Korea’s COVID-19 outbreak could ignite a major health crisis

By Asharq Al-Awsat
People wearing protective face masks walk amid concerns over the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in front of Pyongyang Station in Pyongyang, North Korea April 27, 2020, in this photo released by Kyodo. Kyodo/via Reuters/File Photo

North Korea's admission that it is battling an "explosive" COVID-19 outbreak has raised concerns that the virus could devastate a country with an under-resourced health system, limited testing capabilities, and no vaccine program.

The isolated North confirmed on Thursday its first COVID-19 infections since the pandemic emerged more than two years ago, shifting to the "maximum emergency epidemic prevention system" and imposing a national lockdown. On Friday it reported its first COVID-related death.

State media have not confirmed the total number of COVID-19 cases so far, but said that more than 350,000 people have shown fever symptoms since late April.

No vaccination, limited testing

Along with Eritrea, North Korea is one of only two countries that have not started a vaccination campaign against COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The COVAX global COVID-19 vaccine-sharing program cut the number of doses allocated for North Korea as the country has so far failed to arrange for any shipments, reportedly over international monitoring requirements.

Pyongyang also declined offers of vaccines from China.

The latest reported assessment of whether leader Kim Jong Un was vaccinated was from July 2021, when South Korea's spy agency said there were no signs he had received a shot.

North Korea said last year it had developed its own polymerase chain reaction (PCR) equipment to conduct coronavirus tests, and Russia has said it had delivered small numbers of test kits.

But North Korea is heavily sanctioned over its nuclear weapons program, and since 2020 has maintained strict border lockdowns that have blocked many supplies.

Experts said that so far the pace of testing suggests North Korea cannot handle the number of symptomatic cases it has reported.

As of the end of March, only 64,207 of North Korea's 25 million people had been tested for COVID, and all the results were negative, the latest WHO data shows.

"North Korea has been testing around 1,400 people each week. Assuming they were at their peak capacity, then they can perform 400 tests per day max - not nearly enough to test 350,000 people with symptoms," said Harvard Medical School’s Kee Park, who has worked on health care projects in North Korea.

It's unclear whether North Korea has imposed any mask mandates since the pandemic began. Citizens were at times seen wearing masks, but also going mask-free at some major political events that mobilized tens of thousands of people.

Kim was shown for the first time wearing a mask at the COVID response meeting on Thursday.

Medical system lacks supplies

North Korea ranks last in the world for its ability to rapidly respond to and mitigate the spread of an epidemic, according to the latest Global Health Security Index in December.

Although it has a high number of trained doctors and the ability to rapidly deploy and organize staff in the face of emergencies, North Korea's health care system is chronically under-resourced.

Every North Korean village has one or two clinics or hospitals, and most county hospitals are equipped with X-ray facilities, "though not necessarily functional ones," the WHO said in its 2014-2019 Country Cooperation Strategy report.

Kwon Young-se, South Korea's new nominee to be the unification minister, responsible for inter-Korean ties, said at his confirmation hearing on Thursday the North is believed to lack even the most basic medical supplies such as painkillers and disinfectants.

An independent UN human rights investigator reported in March that the North's COVID-19 restrictions, including the border closings, could have prevented massive outbreaks "though likely at considerable cost to the wider health situation."

"Chronic issues plague the country’s healthcare system, including under-investment in infrastructure, medical personnel, equipment and medicine, irregular power supplies and inadequate water and sanitation facilities," the report said.

Potential 'nightmare'

The outbreak could pose a political challenge for the North's authoritarian leader, North Koreans who had defected to the South said.

"Kim ordered the mobilization of reserve medical supplies, which means in North Korea they will now use war reserves and that general hospitals have ran out of medicines," said Thae Young-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to the South in 2016 and is now a lawmaker.

Ji Seong-ho, another South Korean lawmaker who left the North in 2006, said the virus could spread rapidly, due partly to the lack of a working medical system.

"An enormous number of people died during the (1990s) famine after typhoid broke out. It was a nightmare for the North Korean regime, and for the North Korean people," Ji told a parliamentary session.

What is inkl?
The world’s most important news, from 100+ trusted global sources, in one place.
Morning Edition
Your daily
news overview

Morning Edition ensures you start your day well informed.

No paywalls, no clickbait, no ads
Enjoy beautiful reading

Content is only half the story. The world's best news experience is free from distraction: ad-free, clickbait-free, and beautifully designed.

Expert Curation
The news you need to know

Stories are ranked by proprietary algorithms based on importance and curated by real news journalists to ensure that you receive the most important stories as they break.

Dive Deeper:
Explainer-How N.Korea's COVID-19 outbreak could ignite a major health crisis
North Korea's admission that it is battling an "explosive" COVID-19 outbreak has raised concerns that the virus could devastate a…
N.Korea reports first COVID-19 death as fever spreads 'explosively'
At least one person confirmed to have COVID-19 has died in North Korea and hundreds of thousands have shown fever…
N.Korea reports first COVID outbreak, orders lockdown in "gravest emergency"
North Korea reported its first COVID-19 outbreak on Thursday, calling it the "gravest national emergency" and ordering a national lockdown,…
North Korea reveals six deaths after admitting first Covid outbreak
Six people have died and 350,000 have been treated for a fever that has spread “explosively” across North Korea one…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
NKorea Reports More COVID Deaths, Kim Says Pandemic 'Great Turmoil'
North Korea announced 21 new "fever" deaths Saturday and said more than half a million people had been sickened nationwide,…
North Korea confirms first COVID death; 350,000 reporting ‘fever’
Experts worry North Korea’s health system will be unable to cope with spread of COVID in an unvaccinated population.
Get all your news in one place