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Kim Jong Un blasts pandemic response as North Korean outbreak surges

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, centre, visits a pharmacy in Pyongyang (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service/AP)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, centre, visits a pharmacy in Pyongyang (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service/AP)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un blasted officials over slow medicine deliveries and ordered his military to respond to the surging but largely undiagnosed Covid-19 crisis that has left 1.2 million people ill with fever and 50 dead in a matter of days, state media said.

More than 564,860 people are in quarantine due to the fever that has rapidly spread among people in and around the capital, Pyongyang, since late April.

Eight more deaths and 392,920 newly detected fevers were reported on Monday, the North’s emergency anti-virus headquarters said.

State media did not specify how many were confirmed as Covid-19, but North Korea is believed to lack sufficient testing supplies to confirm coronavirus infections in large numbers and is mostly relying on isolating people with symptoms at shelters.

Failing to slow the virus could have dire consequences for North Korea, considering its broken health care system and that its 26 million people are believed to be unvaccinated, with malnourishment and other conditions of poverty.

People watch a TV screen showing a news programme with an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a train station in Seoul, South Korea
People watch a TV screen showing a news programme with an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a train station in Seoul, South Korea (Lee Jin-man/AP)

Mr Kim during a ruling party Politburo meeting on Sunday criticised government and health officials over what he portrayed as a botched pandemic response, saying medicine supplies are not being distributed to pharmacies in time because of their “irresponsible work attitude” and lack of organisation, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

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 Mr Kim said such steps were not being properly implemented.

Mr Kim ordered the medical units of his military to get involved in stabilising the supply of medicine in Pyongyang, KCNA said.

Mr Kim and Politburo members after the meeting made on-site inspections of pharmacies in a district in Pyongyang, where Mr Kim lamented that most of the shops were in poor condition and lacked storage spaces and criticised some pharmacists for not wearing proper white gowns.

North Korea acknowledged a Covid-19 outbreak for the first time last Thursday, saying an unspecified number of people had tested positive for the Omicron variant.

It instituted a lockdown and Mr Kim ordered public health officials, teachers and others to identify people with fevers so they could be quarantined.

Kim Jong Un, centre, visits a pharmacy in Pyongyang
Kim Jong Un, centre, visits a pharmacy in Pyongyang (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service/AP)

North Korea’s claim of a perfect record in keeping out the virus for two-and-a-half 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.

It was not clear if North Korea’s urgent messaging about its outbreak indicates a willingness to receive outside help.

The country shunned millions of vaccine doses offered by the UN-backed Covax distribution program, likely because they carried international monitoring requirements.

South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol said in Parliament on Monday that the South was willing to send vaccines, medicine, equipment and health personnel to the North if it is willing to accept.

South Korean officials say Pyongyang so far has made no request for Seoul’s help.

Inter-Korean relations have deteriorated since 2019 after the larger negotiations between the US and North Korea collapsed over disagreements involving the North’s nuclear arsenal and US-led sanctions.

Mr Kim has previously praised China’s pandemic response and urged his officials to learn from it, which may indicate North Korea is more willing to accept help from its major ally.

Chinese officials said last week that Beijing was ready to offer help but they had no information about any such request being made.

Even as he called for a lockdown of cities and counties to slow the spread of Covid-19, Mr Kim also stressed the country’s economic goals should be met, which likely means huge groups will continue to gather at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.

While accelerating his missile tests in brinkmanship aimed at pressuring Washington for economic and security concessions, Mr Kim has been grappling with domestic challenges and a pandemic-shocked economy, pushing him to perhaps the toughest moment of his decade in power.

State media in recent weeks have emphasised farming campaigns to protect crops amid a drought during rice-planting season, a worrisome development in a country with chronic food shortages.

Mr Kim is also intent on achieving his stated goals in a five-year national development plan announced in early 2021 after he showed unusual candour by acknowledging that his previous economic plans were not working.

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