SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea on Saturday reported 21 new deaths and 174,440 more people with fever symptoms as the country scrambles to slow the spread of COVID-19 across its unvaccinated population.
The new deaths and cases, which were from Friday, increased total numbers to 27 deaths and 524,440 illnesses amid a rapid spread of fever since late April. North Korea said 243,630 people had recovered and 280,810 remained in quarantine. State media didn’t specify how many of the fever cases and deaths were confirmed as COVID-19 infections.
The country imposed what it described as maximum preventive measures on Thursday after confirming its first COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. It had previously held for more than two years to a widely doubted claim of a perfect record keeping out the virus that has spread to nearly every place in the world.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, during a ruling party Politburo meeting Saturday, described the outbreak as a historically “great upheaval” and called for unity between the government and people to stabilize the outbreak as quickly as possible.
Officials during the meeting mainly discussed ways to swiftly distribute medical supplies the country has released from its emergency reserves, Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency said. In a report presented to the Politburo, the North’s emergency epidemic office blamed most of the deaths on “mistakes like overmuch taking of drugs, bereft of scientific medical treatment.”
Kim, who said he was donating some of his private medicine supplies to help the anti-virus campaign, expressed optimism that the country could bring the outbreak under control, saying most transmissions are occurring within communities that are isolated from one another and not spreading from region to region.
He called for officials to take lessons from the successful pandemic responses of other nations and picked an example in China, the North’s major ally.
China, however, has been facing pressure to change its so-called “zero-COVID” strategy that has brought major cities to a standstill as it struggles to slow the fast-moving omicron variant.
North Korea since Thursday has imposed steps aimed at restricting the movement of people and supplies between cities and counties, but state media’s descriptions of the measures indicate people aren’t being confined to their homes.
Experts say a failure to control the spread of COVID-19 could have devastating consequences in North Korea, considering the country’s poor health care system and that its 26 million people are largely unvaccinated.
Tests of virus samples collected today from an unspecified number of people with fevers in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, confirmed they were infected with the omicron variant, state media said. The country has so far officially confirmed one death as linked to an omicron infection.
Lacking vaccines, antiviral pills, intensive care units and other major health tools to fight the virus, North Korea’s pandemic response will be mostly about isolating people with symptoms at designated shelters, experts say.
North Korea doesn’t have technological and other resources to impose extreme lockdowns like China, which has shut down entire cities and confined residents to their homes, nor could it afford to do so at the risk of unleashing further shock on a fragile economy, said Hong Min, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.
Even as he called for stronger preventive measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, Kim has also stressed that the country’s economic goals should be met, which likely means huge groups will continue to gather at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.
North Korea’s claim of a perfect record in keeping out the virus for two and a half years was widely doubted. But its extremely strict border closure may have staved off a huge outbreak until now.