North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has mobilized the military to respond to the country’s first officially acknowledged outbreak of Covid-19, as the impoverished nation scrambles to address what state media has described as a “major national emergency.”
Despite having placed all cities under lockdown on Thursday, a further 392,920 new cases of “fever” and eight deaths were recorded between Saturday and Sunday evening alone, state media outlet KCNA reported on Monday, though it did not specify Covid-19 as the cause of death.
That brings the total number of reported cases to 1.2 million, with more than 648,000 recovered, and the total death toll to 50. However, many experts are skeptical of the official figures, with few believing that a country of around 25 million people had been spared until now by a virus that has infected millions worldwide.
At an emergency meeting of top officials on Sunday, Kim said state-provided medicine wasn’t being supplied to people through pharmacies in time. He criticized officials for “not properly recognizing the present crisis but only talking about the spirit of devotedly serving the people,” according to KCNA.
He lambasted his cabinet and public health officials for “irresponsible work” and poor “organizing and executing,” and accused the director of the central public prosecutor’s office of “idleness and negligence of his duty,” KCNA reported.
Kim ordered the military’s medical arm to work on “immediately stabilizing the supply of medicines in Pyongyang City,” according to KCNA and discussed ways to ensure hygiene at pharmacies.
After the meeting, Kim visited pharmacies in the capital, where he pointed out the short supply of medicine.
Over the weekend, the country’s state TV aired footage of medical workers spraying empty streets. It also ran an interview with a doctor advising Covid patients to take drugs including paracetamol and ibuprofen – and Korean traditional medicine such as Cheongsimhwan, a pill formulated with various herbs.
An outbreak of Covid-19 could prove disastrous for North Korea, with its dilapidated health care infrastructure, lack of testing equipment and a largely unvaccinated population.
North Korea is not known to have imported any coronavirus vaccines, though it is eligible for the global Covid-19 vaccine sharing program, Covax. In February, Covax reportedly scaled back the number of doses allocated to North Korea because the country failed to arrange for any shipments, according to Reuters.
Given the opaque nature of the regime and the country’s isolation from the world – which has only grown since the pandemic – it is extremely difficult to assess the real situation on the ground.
South Korea offered assistance on Monday, though it’s unclear if Pyongyang will accept the help.
“We must not hold back on providing necessary assistance to the North Korean people, who are exposed to the threat of the coronavirus,” the South’s newly elected President Yoon Suk Yeol said during his first budget speech in the legislature.
“If the North Korean authorities accept, we will not spare any necessary support, such as medicine, including Covid-19 vaccines, medical equipment and health care personnel,” he said, adding the offer is irrespective of political and military considerations.
South Korea’s foreign minister said Friday he had discussed providing humanitarian aid to North Korea during a call with his US counterpart.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it had notified North Korea of its offer on Monday through the inter-Korean joint liaison office. Its formal letter includes the offer of medical supplies, including vaccines, masks, and testing kits, as well as an offer of “working level talks” between the two countries, the ministry said. North Korea has not yet responded to the notice, it added.