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North Korea’s Covid caseload passes 2 million amid global concern about regime’s pandemic plan

Staff disinfect Pyongyang train station during North Korea’s campaign against Covid
Staff disinfect Pyongyang train station during North Korea’s campaign against Covid. It now has reported a total of 2.2 million people with fever, state media says. Photograph: KCNA/EPA

Experts have questioned North Korea’s claim that it is achieving “good results” in its battle against a Covid-19 outbreak, as the number of people with symptoms of the virus surpassed 2 million.

The regime reported 263,370 new fever cases on Friday and two deaths, taking the total caseload to 2.24 million, including 65 deaths, according to state news agency KCNA.

It did not report how many of those cases had tested positive for Covid but said the country was seeing “good results” in its battle against the virus.

The rising caseload and a lack of medical resources and vaccines have led the UN human rights agency to warn of “devastating” consequences for North Korea’s 25 million people, and World Health Organization officials worry an unchecked spread could give rise to deadlier new variants.

Cases of fever reported by the government had declined in the capital Pyongyang but risen in rural provinces. The figures were unlikely to be fully accurate, either due to error or deliberate manipulation, said Martyn Williams, a researcher at the US-based observer 38 North. “I doubt they represent the exact picture,” he said on Twitter.

Some North Korea watchers believe the regime was forced to acknowledge the Covid-19 outbreak last week because attempting to conceal the virus’s spread would have been futile and could have fuelled public discontent with the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un.

Instead, they believe North Korean authorities are underreporting deaths to prove that their response has been effective.

“It’s true that there has been a hole in its two and a half years of pandemic fighting,” said Kwak Gil Sup, head of One Korea Center, a website specialising in North Korea affairs. “But there is a saying that North Korea is ‘a theatre state,’ and I think they are massaging Covid-19 statistics.”

While North Korea is partly using the outbreak as a propaganda tool to cast Kim’s leadership in a favourable light, it has “a Plan B” and “a Plan C” to seek Chinese and other foreign aid if the pandemic gets out of hand, Kwak said.

Kee Park, a global health specialist at Harvard medical school who has worked on health care projects in North Korea, said earlier the number of new cases should start to slow as a result of strengthened preventive measures such as travel restrictions and keeping workers separated in groups according to their jobs.

But, Park said, North Korea will struggle to provide treatment for the already large number of people with Covid-19, adding that deaths could reach the tens of thousands.

Despite the caseload, the isolated country claimed that farming continued, factories were working and it was planning a state funeral for a former general.

“Even under the maximum emergency epidemic prevention situation, normal production is kept at key industrial sectors and large-scale construction projects are propelled without let-up,” KCNA said on Friday. “Good results are reported steadily in the ongoing anti-epidemic war.”

North Korea said on Wednesday the country’s virus outbreak was taking a “favourable turn”, although officials in South Korea say it is hard to draw a conclusion as it is unclear how North Korea is calculating the number of fever and Covid patients.

South Korea and the US have both offered to help North Korea fight the virus, including sending aid, but have not received a response, Seoul’s deputy national security adviser said this week.

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