“The number of people with fever between the end of April and May 13 is over 524,440,” according to KCNA, the state news agency, which reported 27 deaths in total.
This reclusive country of 25 million inhabitants announced its first cases of coronavirus on Thursday, declaring to switch to a regime of “maximum emergency prevention of epidemics” – which involves containment measures – after people had been tested positive for Omicron subvariant BA.2. He had also announced his first death.
On Friday alone, “more than 174,440 people presented with fever, at least 81,430 have fully recovered and 21 have died,” KCNA reported.
It does not specify whether these new cases and deaths have all tested positive for Covid-19, but experts say the country does not have the capacity to massively test its population.
“It’s no exaggeration to consider these fever cases all to be coronavirus cases, given the lack of testing capacity,” said Cheong Seong-chang, North Korea specialist at the Sejong Institute.
“The actual number of Covid cases could be higher than the figures showing people with fever due to many asymptomatic cases,” he said.
– Chinese model –
North Korea, which was one of the first countries in the world to close its borders in January 2020 after the virus emerged in neighboring China, has long boasted of its ability to keep the virus at bay. It had not previously reported any confirmed cases of Covid-19 to the WHO.
The official press declared that these first deaths were “due to negligence, in particular an overdose of drugs, due to ignorance of scientific treatment methods”.
Leader Kim appeared on television for the first time wearing a mask, after chairing an emergency politburo meeting on the epidemic situation on Thursday. He then ordered containment measures to try to stop the spread of the virus.
On Saturday, a second meeting of the political bureau was held, during which the leader acknowledged that “the spread of a malignant disease is coming to upset our country”, according to KCNA.
He promised a “rapid distribution of emergency drugs” and assured that he wanted to introduce “methods of treatment for patients, including those with special constitutions” in order to “minimize human losses”.
He said he was “convinced” that he could “defeat this malicious infectious disease as soon as possible”, added the agency.
But the country’s health system – one of the worst in the world – is in shambles and lacks essential drugs and equipment, experts warn.
Mr. Kim announced that he would adopt the Chinese model of fighting the coronavirus.
– Nuclear activity –
“We should learn from the successful experiences and achievements of the Chinese Communist Party and its people in preventing the virus,” he said.
China, the world’s only major economy to maintain a zero Covid policy, however, is grappling with multiple outbreaks of Omicron despite strict lockdowns and massive testing across the country.
Another daunting challenge for North Korea: none of the 25 million inhabitants are vaccinated against the coronavirus, Pyongyang having rejected vaccination offers from the WHO, China and Russia.
Beijing offered aid to South Korea on Thursday, and Seoul on Friday offered to send vaccines.
According to Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, the leader’s statements also indicate that he “will try to source from China”.
Despite this outbreak, new satellite images show that North Korea has resumed construction of a nuclear reactor long stopped.
“I can’t tell you when the reactor will be ready to go, but it’s about ten times bigger than the existing reactor at Yongbyon,” Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute in California wrote on Twitter on Saturday.
“It would produce ten times more plutonium for nuclear weapons,” he claimed, adding, “It would fulfill Kim’s promise to increase the number of nuclear weapons” she possesses.
The United States and South Korea recently claimed that Pyongyang was preparing to carry out another nuclear test imminently.
For analysts, Kim could do it faster than expected in order to divert the attention of the population from the epidemic situation.