Kim Blasts NKorea Pandemic Response 05/16 06:06
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un criticized
officials over slow medicine deliveries and mobilized the military to respond
to a surge in suspected COVID-19 infections, as his nation struggled to contain
a fever that has reportedly killed dozens and sickened nearly a million others
in a span of three days.
North Korean health authorities said Monday that eight more people died and
an additional 392,920 were newly found to have feverish symptoms. That brings
the death toll to 50 and illnesses to more than 1.2 million, respectively. It's
a sharp jump from six dead and 350,000 sick reported last Friday, a day after
the North said that it found that an unspecified number of people in capital
Pyongyang tested positive for the omicron variant.
Kim has acknowledged that the fast-spreading fever, highly likely driven by
COVID-19, is causing "great upheaval" in the country, and outside experts say
the true scale of the outbreak is likely much bigger than what's described in
the state-controlled media.
Some suspect that North Korea has understated its fatalities or illnesses to
shield Kim's leadership from criticism. The North likely lacks test kits and
other tools to detect virus carriers with no or mild symptoms, which means that
several million might already have been infected.
"When people die, North Korean authorities will say they've died of overwork
or from natural deaths, not because of COVID-19," said Nam Sung-wook, a
professor at Korea University in South Korea. Nam said the North is likely
understating the death toll to protect "the dignity of its supreme leader."
While neighboring South Korea and China have offered to send medical
supplies and other help, experts say it's too late to inoculate the North's 26
million people, and that the only realistic outside help would be offering
limited supplies of vaccines to reduce deaths among high-risk groups, including
the elderly and people with preexisting conditions.
It's also unclear whether and how soon Kim would accept outside offers of
aid because he has previously rallied for unity at home to guard against the
pandemic without resorting to foreign help.
State media didn't specify how many of the fever cases were confirmed as
COVID-19. Among the 50 fatalities, North Korea officially identified only one
as a COVID-19 case so far.
North Korea is believed to be mostly relying on isolating people with
symptoms at shelters. Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at South Korea's Sejong
Institute said the North's limited number of test kits are likely mainly
reserved for the ruling elite.
Failing to slow the virus could have dire consequences for North Korea,
considering its broken health care system and that its people are believed to
be unvaccinated. There's also malnourishment and chronic poverty.
The North imposed what it described as maximum preventive measures that
restricted travel between cities and counties, and Kim ordered public health
officials, teachers and others to identify people with fevers so they could be
quarantined. As of Sunday, more than 564,860 people were in quarantine, North
Korea's state media reported.
The explosive growth in fever cases may underscore how fast omicron could
travel across an unvaccinated population without access to proper health tools,
and fatalities will surely jump in coming weeks considering time lags between
infections and deaths, said Jung Jae-hun, a professor of preventive medicine at
South Korea's Gachon University.
While it's clear COVID-19 is spreading at an alarming speed, there are
questions about the accuracy of North Korea's fever tally. Jung said it's
unlikely that North Korean health workers are able to make reliable daily
updates, considering the lack of tests and other resources, and are possibly
adding multiple days of cases into their single-day counts following delays.
Cho Han Bum, an analyst at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification,
said North Korea's fever totals seemed an "outright lie."
"North Korea says about 390,000 more fell ill but only eight died in the
past day, while South Korea (on Sunday) reported 25,000 new cases and 48
deaths," he said.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies,
said that the real number of COVID-19 infections in North Korea is likely at
least three times larger than North Korea's tally of fever patients because of
underreporting, the bad health care system and poorly computerized
Kim during a ruling party Politburo meeting on Sunday criticized government
and health officials over what he portrayed as a botched pandemic response,
saying medicine supplies aren't being distributed to pharmacies in time because
of their "irresponsible work attitude" and lack of organization.
The Politburo had issued an emergency order to immediately release and
quickly distribute state medicine reserves and for pharmacies to open for
24-hour shifts, but Kim said such steps weren't being properly implemented. Kim
ordered the medical units of his military to get involved in stabilizing the
supply of medicine in Pyongyang, KCNA said.
North Korea's previous claim of a perfect record in keeping out the virus
for 2 1/2 years was widely doubted. But its extremely strict border closure,
large-scale quarantines and propaganda that stressed anti-virus controls as a
matter of "national existence" may have staved off a huge outbreak until now.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol told the National Assembly on Monday
that the South was willing to send vaccines, medicine, equipment and health
personnel to the North if it's willing to accept.
South Korean officials say Pyongyang so far has made no request for Seoul's
help. The North also shunned millions of vaccine doses offered by the
U.N.-backed COVAX distribution program, likely because they carried
international monitoring requirements.
Kim still stressed the country's economic goals should be met, which likely
means huge groups will continue to gather at agricultural, industrial and