Explainer: What’s Behind North Korea’s COVID-19 Admission?

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SEOUL, South Korea – Before admitting its first domestic COVID-19 case, North Korea spent 2 1/2 years rejecting an out-of-vaccine offer and steadfastly claiming that its superior socialist system was protecting its 26 million people from “a contagious virus”. Millions killed around the world.

Its shocking confession this week has made many outsiders wonder how bad things actually are, and there are growing concerns that it could lead to a major humanitarian crisis in one of the world’s worst public medical infrastructure.

Because the North has been strictly shut down since early 2020, with no journalists, aid workers or diplomats entering regularly, reading the situation is a game of guesswork, and the North was obscured by its state-wide media descriptions. However, there is some worrying information: no reported vaccine, very limited testing capacity, a terrible medical system and widespread poverty.

Without immediate foreign aid shipments, some experts say North Korea could face massive casualties and infection rates. Others, however, say that North Korea is using its confession to spread the virus and increase its control over its people.

Take a look at how lockdown can happen in one of the most lockdown countries in the world.

What is known about the outbreak?

North Korea announced Thursday that an undisclosed number of people in Pyongyang have tested positive for the Omicron variant. It called the outbreak “the most serious emergency in the state.”

However, how vague it was and the northern media used vague language.

A “fever” has been spreading “explosively” since late April, killing six people, leaving 350,000 sick and 187,800 quarantined, state media reported on Friday. An Omicron variant of one of the dead was found, they said.

The cause of the fever has not yet been identified, the report said.

Kim Sin-gun, a professor at Korea University College of Medicine in Seoul, said most people with a fever were probably infected with the virus. He said North Korea had a limited number of Kavid-19 testing kits.

The World Health Organization says North Korea has reported testing of 64,200 people since the outbreak began, far fewer than any other country. The number of COVID-19 tests in South Korea stands at about 172 million.

The North Korean outbreak could be linked to a massive military parade on April 25, where leader Kim Jong Un spoke about his nuclear weapons in front of thousands of Pyongyang residents and troops. The Omicron virus could enter North Korea through North Korea’s northern border with China during the reopening of rail freight vehicles between the two countries in January. Since then the border has been closed.

The outbreak could be devastating as the North Korean population remains largely unvaccinated and suffers from a chronic shortage of medicines and medical equipment.

“There are many vulnerable people in North Korea who do not have strong resistance. Its official inoculation rate is zero and it contains no COVID-19 treatment pills, “said Kim, a professor.” Without outside support, “North Korea could end up with one of the worst epidemic deaths and infection rates in the world for the size of its population.”

In many developed countries, Omicron has significantly reduced hospitalization and mortality compared to previous coronavirus forms, mostly due to vaccination, use of COVID-19 antiviral pills, effective treatment in intensive care units, and population exposure to the virus. Before. None of this applies to North Korea, says Jung Jae-hun, a professor of antidote at Gachan University in South Korea.

“We were talking about a 0.1% mortality rate for Omicron in South Korea, but in North Korea it is going to be significantly higher, possibly even reaching 1%, although it is difficult to make an accurate prediction at this time,” Jung said.

The secret nature of North Korea makes it virtually impossible to determine the actual scale of its prevalence and how it will develop.

According to Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website focusing on North Korean health problems, many North Koreans have become accustomed to living with a problematic medical system and buying medicine in person.

Although North Korea cannot avoid mass transfers, Ahn said it could probably avoid “catastrophic” deaths, such as the millions killed during the famine in the mid-1990s.

How is North Korea responding?

Since Thursday, North Korea has imposed a nationwide lockdown, isolating all work and residential units from each other. However, there are indications that the country may be trying to survive with the virus.

Kim Jong Un still instructed officials to move forward with construction, agriculture and other scheduled state projects. On Thursday afternoon, the country even tested three ballistic missiles, suggesting that it would continue the latest trend of weapons testing.

Hong Min, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said North Korea’s response to the epidemic would be largely about isolating people with symptoms at shelters. He says North Korea does not have the resources to impose extreme lockdowns like China, which has shut down entire cities and confined residents to their homes. It is already worried about hurting the fragile economy further.

Ahn said the tough anti-virus measures would not be too different from previous sanctions and that it was mostly rhetoric to pressure the public tired of long-term epidemic restrictions to maintain their vigilance amid growing cases in neighboring China.

Yang Un-chul, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute, said North Korea could use its advanced epidemic response to increase its control over its people. Young said that if North Korea really wanted to protect itself from the virus, it would have been offered an outside vaccine shipment.

What are the possibilities for outside help?

The outbreak is expected to lead to North Korea receiving shipments outside of vaccines, COVID-19 treatment pills and other medical supplies.

North Korea will not directly ask for such help but will instead see how Seoul and Washington respond first, Kim said.

Other experts say that North Korea may feel that isolating people with symptoms is the only viable option, considering the lack of hospital infrastructure and medical supplies that would be difficult to overcome without extensive outside help – something that North Korea is unlikely to accept.

Jung said the only meaningful aid North Korea could offer was a limited supply of vaccines for the elderly and a pre-existing medical condition, as it was too late to vaccinate the entire population.

Hong said that despite North Korea’s outbreak, steps toward its economic and military development showed that the country was willing to accept a certain level of immunity to gain immunity through infection rather than through vaccines and other outside help.

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