North Korea declared a “maximum emergency” on Thursday after officials announced the country’s first outbreak of COVID-19, a bleak moment for the reclusive nation as most of its citizens remain unvaccinated against the virus.
Just a day later, North Korea said a new fever had spread “explosively” across the nation, infecting at least 350,000 people since April and causing at least six deaths, including one confirmed to be linked to the coronavirus. At least 18,000 people were diagnosed with the fever nationwide on Thursday alone, and more than 187,000 people were being isolated and treated.
“A fever whose cause couldn’t be identified explosively spread nationwide from late April, and more than 350,000 people got fever in a short span of time,” North Korea’s state-run KCNA said Friday. The agency added that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un expressed: “It is the most important challenge and supreme tasks facing our Party to reverse the immediate public health crisis situation at an early date, restore the stability of epidemic prevention and protect the health and wellbeing of our people.”
The figures echo what many other countries experienced at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. But for North Korea, which has effectively sequestered itself the past two years and maintained an iron grip on its people, the outbreak presents a stark public health challenge and raises deep concern that it could prompt a humanitarian crisis.
State media said Thursday that authorities had found the first case of the highly transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus, a rare admission from Pyongyang. All North Korean cities and counties were ordered into strict lockdown to prevent any spread.
NK News reported some experts believe North Korea’s large-scale military parade on April 25 could have been a superspreader event that triggered the current outbreak. Tens of thousands of maskless North Koreans participated in the event, which celebrated the 90th anniversary of the country’s military.
Kim himself wore a mask in public on Thursday, the first time he’s believed to have done so. Yonhap News said the decision likely demonstrates the troubling situation North Korea is in with the latest outbreak.
The New York Times noted that North Korea has not accepted any COVID-19 vaccine donations from other nations and has a woefully under-prepared public health system. Any strain on its health infrastructure would also be exacerbated by two years of border closures with China, its main trading partner, and fierce United Nations sanctions over its ballistic weapons programs.
Joshua Pollack, the editor of the U.S.-based Nonproliferation Review and a close follower of North Korea, said the country’s years-long strategy to keep COVID-19 out only imperiled it when the virus eventually arrived.
“North Korea’s weak public health system has pushed them into a corner: to keep COVID out, they have sealed the borders right [up],” he wrote on Twitter. “But this also keeps most food and medical imports out. The public is vulnerable.”
South Korean officials have expressed hope that any request for aid from the North could help restart diplomatic talks that have languished for years. Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which focuses on relations between the two nations, said the country would provide medical assistance and other help to the North if requested, The Associated Press reported.
The United States said Thursday it had no immediate plans to share vaccines with Pyongyang, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki accusing the Kim regime of focusing more on military power than medical supplies.
“We do continue to support international efforts aimed at the provision of critical humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable North Koreans, and this is, of course, a broader part of the DPRK continuing to exploit its own citizens by not accepting this type of aid,” Psaki said Thursday. “It’s not just vaccines. It’s also a range of humanitarian assistance that could very much help the people and the country, and instead they divert resources to build their unlawful nuclear and ballistic missiles programs.”