Why North Korea’s COVID-19 outbreak is cause for worry

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According to state media, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stated officials’ incompetence and sloth exacerbated the country’s Covid outbreak, which has already reached 1.7 million cases.

Last week, the nuclear-armed country reported its first coronavirus cases, and the Omicron variant-fueled outbreak has since spread, signaling the end of a two-year ban imposed since the pandemic began.

As of Tuesday evening, North Korea had registered 232,880 new cases of “fever,” increasing the overall number of cases to 1.72 million, with 62 deaths, according to KCNA.

To combat the virus’ spread, Kim committed during the Tuesday meeting to “arouse the entire Party like an explosive volcano.”

State media reported that medicines given by the Kim family were distributed to North Koreans in South Hwanghae province, in an effort to underline his personal role in the outbreak.

Experts claim North Korea has one of the poorest healthcare systems in the world, with understaffed hospitals, limited intensive care units, and no Covid treatment medications or mass testing capability.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects a pharmacy in Pyongyang.

WHO is concerned about the COVID outbreak in North Korea

North Korea’s COVID-ravaged government has two key priorities: keeping Great Leader Kim Jong-un alive and avoiding embarrassment.

A third concern for Kim as Omicron sweeps through the Hermit Kingdom is safeguarding his elite support network in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital.

The current outbreak’s location, according to Go Myong Hyun of the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, is the most likely reason the regime has recognized Covid’s introduction for the first time.

“All signs are that the leadership, particularly Kim Jong-un, is concerned about the people of Pyongyang. The rest of the country, we can’t say the same,” Go told The Australian.

In a theatrical address to his Workers Party of Korea comrades over the weekend, North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un labeled the breakout of 1.5 million illnesses and 56 deaths the “great upheaval.”

According to party-state media, Kim, 38, sneered at his officials’ “incompetence” and “irresponsibility” and promised to “always share the destiny” of North Korea’s 25 million people.

However, in the world’s only dynastic communist state, some citizens are more equal than others.

To “stabilize the supply of pharmaceuticals,” Kim has instructed Pyongyang pharmacies to remain open “24/7.” It’s unclear what medications North Korean pharmacists are selling.

Although there has been no vaccination campaign, it is plausible that members of the elite – including Kim – have been administered Chinese-made vaccines in secret.

Instead, Kim has advocated for a “zero Covid” policy, rejecting offers of vaccines for his people.

South Korea’s vaccination promise was turned down, as was another from the World Health Organization-backed Covax program.

There have been allegations that China has turned down a vaccine request, albeit the circumstances are unclear.

North Korea reported its first coronavirus cases cases last week, and the Omicron variant-fuelled outbreak has since ballooned

China is still the most likely source of PPE and antiviral drugs for North Korea. Beijing stated on Monday that it was “closely observing the epidemic situation,” but failed to elaborate on the assistance it was considering for its sole ally.

“China stands ready to strengthen anti-epidemic cooperation with the DPRK and maintain close coordination on this,” said Zhao Lijian, a spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry.

Since early 2020, North Korea has emulated China’s closed border policy and established semi-lockdowns over parts of the country.

Other regulations have been more creative, such as orders to shoot anyone crossing the North Korean border illegally on sight.

Food shortages have become so severe as a result of the lockdowns – and the impending termination of trade with China – that even the president has recognized the situation.

Last year, Kim warned a meeting of senior executives, “The people’s food situation is now getting tense.”

More than 500,000 people are thought to have died of starvation.

Although the situation has improved, a recent UN assessment estimates that more than 40% of the country’s population is still food insecure.

“The collapse of trade, notably with China, since the closure of borders at the end of January 2020 will have aggravated the food situation,” according to the research.

According to the Seoul-based Daily NK, two North Koreans were sentenced to life in jail last year for smuggling grains into the country from China.

Even with the current epidemic, Go, a specialist on North Korea’s economics and regime stability, thinks the situation is not as “dire” as it was in the 1990s.

The Covid epidemic, on the other hand, has “thrown a wrench” in Pyongyang’s trademark foreign policy: missile testing.

“It’s a challenge,” he continued, “but I don’t think it’s a core challenge that might lead to regime collapse.”

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