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N Korea deploys army as WHO expressed ‘concern’ over COVID

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wears a face mask while inspecting a pharmacy in Pyongyang, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2022 [KCNA via Reuters]

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered the military to stabilise the distribution of COVID-19 medicines in Pyongyang, days after announcing a lockdown and admitting the country’s first confirmed coronavirus outbreak.

North Korea acknowledged for the first time last week that it was battling an “explosive” COVID-19 outbreak, with experts raising concerns that the virus could devastate a country where few have been vaccinated against the disease, medical supplies are limited and the health system in a dilapidated state.

In a sign of how serious the situation may be, Kim “strongly criticised” healthcare officials at a politburo meeting on Sunday for what he called a botched response to epidemic prevention – specifically a failure to keep pharmacies open around the clock to distribute medicine.

He ordered the army to get to work “on immediately stabilising the supply of medicines in Pyongyang”, where officials said the Omicron BA.2 variant was confirmed in at least one death last week.

“WHO is concerned and ready to support the government and the people of DPR Korea to respond to the pandemic and save lives,” Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, the regional director of WHO South-East Asia said in a statement on Monday, referring to the North by its official name.

The WHO said it was awaiting for more details on the outbreak from inside the country, but was ready to provide help to scale up testing, strengthen case management, and provide essential medical supplies and medicines.

“With the country yet to initiate COVID-19 vaccination, there is risk that the virus may spread rapidly among the masses unless curtailed with immediate and appropriate measures,” Dr Khetrapal Singh said.

As of 6pm on Monday – five days after announcing the outbreak – North Korea had reported a total of 1.48 million cases of ‘fever’, It also announced a further six deaths.

The North has blamed a large number of the deaths on people who were “careless in taking drugs” because of a lack of knowledge about the Omicron variant of coronavirus and its correct treatment.

In neighbouring South Korea, President Yoon Sul-yeol again offered assistance telling parliament on Monday that his government was ready to provide COVID-19 vaccines and other medical support to Pyongyang.

“We must not hold back on providing necessary assistance to the North Korean people, who are exposed to the threat of the coronavirus,” Yoon said during his first budget speech at the National Assembly.

“If the North Korean authorities accept, we will not spare any necessary support, such as medicine, including COVID-19 vaccines, medical equipment and healthcare personnel,” he said.

Seoul’s unification ministry, responsible for relations between the neighbours, said it would soon propose a plan of support to Pyongyang.

‘Irresponsible’

North Korea has one of the world’s worst healthcare systems, with poorly-equipped hospitals, few intensive care units, and no COVID-19 treatment drugs or mass testing ability, experts say.

Kim has said the outbreak is causing “great turmoil” in the country and on Sunday visited pharmacies neat the capital’s Taedong river, state media KCNA reported.

The failure to distribute medicine properly was “because officials of the Cabinet and public health sector in charge of the supply have not rolled up their sleeves, not properly recognising the present crisis,” KCNA quoted Kim as saying.

Kim’s public criticism is a sign that the situation on the ground is grim, said Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

“He is pointing out the overall inadequacy of the quarantine system,” he told the AFP news agency.

North Korea has previously turned down offers of COVID-19 vaccines from China and the WHO, but it is likely to need international assistance to get through the massive Omicron surge, Yang added.

North Korea’s coronavirus outbreak comes as US President Joe Biden prepares to visit Seoul later this week, with discussions of Pyongyang’s weapons programme likely to top the agenda.

Despite the public health crisis, new satellite imagery indicates North Korea has resumed construction at a long-dormant nuclear reactor and officials in Washington and Seoul have warned that Kim is preparing to conduct another nuclear test.

Analysts have warned Kim could speed up testing plans to distract the population from the outbreak.

Taking pandemic help from South Korea would both hurt North Korea’s “ego” and force it to hold off on its nuclear testing plans, said Cheong Seong-jang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute.

“If Kim Jong Un is determined to conduct a test, he will not accept South Korea’s help,” he said.