North Korea said it found nearly 220,000 more people with fever symptoms, despite leader Kim Jong Un claiming progress in slowing a largely undiagnosed spread of COVID-19 across his unvaccinated populace.
The outbreak has caused concern about serious tragedies in the poor, isolated country with one of the world’s worst health care systems and a high tolerance for civilian suffering.
Experts say North Korea is almost certainly downplaying the true scale of the viral spread, including a strangely small death toll, to soften the political blow on Kim as he navigates the toughest moment in his decade of rule.
Around 219,030 North Koreans with fevers were identified in the 24 hours through 6 pm Friday, the fifth straight daily increase of around 200,000, according to the state-run Central News Agency, which attributed the information to the government’s anti-virus headquarters.
North Korea said more than 2.4 million people have fallen ill and 66 people have died since an unidentified fever began quickly spreading in late April, although the country has only been able to identify a handful of those cases as COVID-19 due to a lack of testing supplies.
After maintaining a dubious claim for two and a half years that it had perfectly blocked the virus from entering its territory, the North admitted to Omicron infections last week.
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Amid a paucity of public health tools, the North has mobilized more than a million health workers to find people with fevers and isolate them at quarantine facilities.
Kim also imposed strict restrictions on travel between cities and towns and mobilized thousands of troops to help with the transport of medicine to pharmacies in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, which has been the centre of the outbreak.
During a ruling party Politburo meeting on Saturday, Kim also seemed to hint at relaxing his pandemic response to ease his economic woes, instructing officials to actively modify the country’s preventive measures based on the changing virus situation and to come up with various plans to revitalize the national economy.
Experts say Kim can’t afford to bring the country to a standstill that would unleash further shock on a fragile economy, strained by decades of mismanagement, crippling US-led sanctions over his nuclear weapons ambitions and pandemic border closures.
North Korea’s optimistic description of its pandemic response starkly contrasts with outside concerns about dire consequences, including deaths that may reach tens of thousands.
North Korea’s admission of a COVID-19 outbreak came amid a streak of weapons tests, including the country’s first demonstration of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017 in March, as Kim pushes brinkmanship aimed at pressuring the US to accept the idea of the North as nuclear power and negotiating economic and security concessions from a position of strength.
The economic challenges and COVID-19 crisis are unlikely to slow his pressure campaign. US and South Korean officials have said there’s a possibility the North conducts another missile or nuclear explosive test during or around President Joe Biden’s visits to South Korea and Japan this week.
Nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled for more than three years over disagreements over how to relax crippling US-led sanctions in exchange for disarmament steps by the North.