On Monday, North Korean state media KCNA indicated that a total of 50 people have died and a total of 1.2 million cases have been reported, of what Pyongyang is referring to as “fever”. ‘Supreme Leader’ Kim Jong-un has slammed the pandemic response by healthcare officials, and ordered the country’s army to assist with medicine distribution. This comes amid nationwide lockdowns to slow the spread of COVID-19 across the reportedly unvaccinated population.
According to state media, Kim Jong-un criticised healthcare officials as they failed to keep pharmacies open 24/7 to distribute medicines. North Korea’s emergency anti-virus headquarters has indicated that over 1.2 million people have fallen ill because of “fever” since April, while at least half a million people are currently under quarantine. The North Korean dictator also visited the pharmacies to see the on-ground situation and “strongly criticised the Cabinet and public health sector for their irresponsible work attitude”, said KCNA.
Reportedly, North Korea has one of the world’s worst healthcare systems, with few ICUs and no COVID treatment or mass testing abilities. While the country managed to stay COVID-free due to its rigid blockade since the beginning of the pandemic, experts say that with the new Omicron wave in neighbouring countries, it was inevitable.
The 26 million people of North Korea are largely believed to be unvaccinated as the country has previously rejected COVID vaccines under the UN-backed COVAX distribution program. It was not until last Thursday when North Korea acknowledged its COVID-19 outbreak, and indicated that several people in Pyongyang have tested positive for the Omicron variant.
On Monday, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said, “If North Korea responds (to our support), we will spare no medicines including COVID-19 vaccines, medical equipment and health personnel.” Additionally, Seoul officials have indicated that no request has been made yet. During the ruling party’s last meeting, Kim had praised China’s response to the pandemic and urged North Korean officials to learn from them.
As China is a major ally, North Korea is likely to accept help from the country. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian last week indicated that Beijing is ready to assist North Korea with their recent COVID-19 outbreak however, no such request has been made by the country yet.