Can North Korea control a major Covid outbreak?

Notoriously secretive state ‘on verge of catastrophe’

Kim Jong-un removes his face mask after announcing North Korea’s first official Covid case
Kim Jong-un announces North Korea’s first official Covid case
(Image credit: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)

North Korea could be on the brink of a health crisis, experts have said, after the country was plunged into a national lockdown amid what it claims is its first major outbreak of Covid-19.

State media reported last week that a sub-variant of the highly transmissible Omicron strain had been detected in the capital, Pyongyang. The notoriously secretive country has since admitted that 56 people have died and 269,510 have been infected.

Exacerbating fears that the country is being consumed by infections is its disclosure that another 1.5m people are suffering from “fever”, The Economist said, a term being used because it “lacks the testing infrastructure necessary to confirm diagnoses of Covid”.

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The one party state has a population of about 25 million and is one of only two countries in the world, along with Eritrea, whose population is “completely unvaccinated against the coronavirus”, The Times reported.

‘National emergency’

Revealing the Covid outbreak, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said: “There occurred the greatest state emergency incident that made a hole in our emergency anti-epidemic front we have firmly defended for two years and three months since February 2020.”

The state outlet said that Kim has vowed to eradicate further infections in keeping with the nation’s zero-Covid strategy, describing it as a “serious emergency”.

Admitting to an outbreak of Covid-19 marks “an abrupt change for a secretive country that had long insisted it had no cases of the virus”, The New York Times said. But it confirms the suspicions of “sceptical” experts who said “a lack of extensive testing and the North’s threadbare public health system” may explain the lack of cases.

A theory for the use of the term “fever” to describe the outbreak is that it is a “ploy to disguise the seriousness of the crisis” even as the country enters a national lockdown, said The Economist.

But regardless of the “two-tier” system being used to report new cases, “the prevalence of tuberculosis and malnutrition” in North Korea – both of which are linked to an increased risk of dying with Covid – only “increases the urgency of getting shots into arms”.

Euphemisms aside, the virus is evidently “spreading like wildfire”, the paper said.

Kim held an emergency politburo meeting last week, KCNA said, calling on “all the cities and counties of the whole country to thoroughly lock down their areas”. NK News, a specialist news site based in Seoul, reported that areas of Pyongyang had already been locked down for two days, with reports emerging of panic buying.

According to KCNA, Kim has also ordered that people continue working, but said that “each working unit, production unit and living unit” must be kept “from each other​”. He also called for unity, the agency said, warning that “unscientific fear, lack of faith and weak will” are a “more dangerous enemy” than the “malicious virus”.

Vaccine pariah

North Korea “so far has shunned vaccines offered by the UN-backed Covax distribution programme”, The Guardian said, “possibly because administering the jabs would require international monitoring”.

The leadership in Pyongyang likely “fears that information gathered by international public health workers” will “expose the developmental shortcomings of the country and weaken the blind loyalty of its citizens”, The Diplomat reported.

Delivering vaccines is also logistically complicated by “the North’s obsession with secrecy”, as well as its inability “to develop a modern public health infrastructure” and refusal to accept “any significant international assistance”.

It is also possible that “vaccine snobbery” influenced the decision to reject vaccines offered by the UN-backed scheme, the Asia-Pacific focused news site added.

Observers said that officials may have been put off from using the “less effective Sinovac and Russian Sputnik V vaccines” and were “spooked by early safety concerns associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine”.

Caught in the spotlight

Why North Korea has chosen to admit to an outbreak now may be explained by it being “too serious and too difficult to hide”, said BBC Seoul correspondent Jean Mackenzie. Given that the pariah state has “no vaccines, poor healthcare and a limited capacity to test people”, its “options are very limited right now”.

The authorities in Pyongyang “have clearly decided they have no choice but to put the country into lockdown”, she added. But “in order to do this, they simply have to tell people and the rest of the world”.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, agreed that the regime’s public acknowledgement of coronavirus cases must mean that the outbreak is too large to hide, telling The Guardian: “The public health situation must be serious.”

But this “does not mean North Korea is suddenly going to be open to humanitarian assistance and take a more conciliatory line toward Washington and Seoul”, he said.

South Korea’s government has said it has renewed its offer of humanitarian assistance in response to the news of the outbreak. Pyongyang has yet to respond.

In the meantime, The Guardian said that the Covid outbreak could already be “unleashing a humanitarian crisis” in a nation whose “economy has been battered by the pandemic-enforced closure of its border with China”, a series of “natural disasters” and “years of international sanctions imposed in response to ballistic missile tests”.

“It looks really bad,” Owen Miller, a lecturer in Korean studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told the paper.

“They are facing the rampant spread of Omicron without protection from vaccines, without much – if any – immunity in the population and without access to most of the drugs that have been used to treat Covid elsewhere.”

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