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North Korea confirms first Covid-19 death in ‘explosive’ outbreak

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North Korea confirmed its first Covid-19 death on Friday, saying the fever was spreading
North Korea confirms first Covid-19 death in ‘explosive’ outbreak

North Korea confirmed its first Covid-19 death on Friday, saying the fever was spreading “explosively” across the country and tens of thousands of people were being isolated after falling ill.

The island country only reported its first Covid cases on Thursday and said it was moving towards a “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system” after sick patients in the capital Pyongyang tested positive for the Omicron variant.

North Korea has been under a rigid coronavirus lockdown since the start of the pandemic in 2020, but with massive Omicron outbreaks sweeping across neighboring countries, experts said it was only a matter of time before covid crept in.

“A fever whose cause could not be identified has spread explosively across the country since the end of April,” the official Korea Central News Agency said.

“Six people died (one of them tested positive for the Omicron subvariant BA.2),” it added.

With its 25 million people unvaccinated against Covid, North Korea‘s crumbling health infrastructure would struggle to cope with a major outbreak, experts say.

“On May 12 alone, some 18,000 people with a fever occurred across the country, and up to 187,800 people are being isolated and treated so far,” KCNA said.

Leader Kim Jong Un, seen wearing a mask on state television for the first time, oversaw an emergency Politburo meeting on Thursday and ordered nationwide lockdowns in a bid to stem the spread of the virus.

On Friday, KCNA said Kim visited the state emergency epidemic prevention headquarters and “learned about the national spread of Covid-19.”

“It is the most important challenge and supreme tasks facing our Party to reverse the immediate public health crisis situation at an early date,” KCNA added.

‘great chaos’
The massive nationwide outbreak is likely related to a large military parade in Pyongyang on April 25, said Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute.

North Korea is likely to experience “great chaos” due to the rapid spread of Omicron, he said, given that the country currently reports nearly 20,000 cases in a single day.

“If the death toll from Omicron rises, Pyongyang may have to ask for China‘s support,” he added.

Beijing, Pyongyang’s only major ally and benefactor, said on Thursday that it was ready to help North Korea with its Covid-19 outbreak.

But China, the world’s only major economy still maintaining a zero-Covid policy, is battling multiple Omicron outbreaks, with some major cities, including financial hub Shanghai, under strict stay-at-home orders.

North Korea previously rejected offers of Covid vaccines from China, as well as from the World Health Organization’s Covax scheme.

In South Korea, the new administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol offered to send vaccines to the North, but admitted it had not yet discussed it with Pyongyang.

Kim said on Friday that the fever outbreak “shows that there is a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system” and called for more lockdowns.

Kim “said it is the top priority to block the spread of the virus by actively locking down areas and isolating and treating people with fevers responsibly,” KCNA reported.

Analysts said China‘s experience with Omicron indicated lockdowns may not succeed, but without antiviral treatment and vaccines, North Korea has few options.

nuclear distraction
North Korea has tested three short-range ballistic missiles, Seoul said on Thursday, shortly after Pyongyang confirmed its first Covid cases.

After high-profile talks collapsed in 2019, North Korea has doubled down on weapons tests, conducting a barrage of launches so far this year, including intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Satellite images indicate that North Korea is preparing to conduct a nuclear test, and the United States has warned that this could happen as early as this month.

If Pyongyang needs help (vaccines and medicine), it may need to delay testing, some analysts said, but others warned the Covid-19 outbreak could speed things up.

“A nuclear test would be a good way to distract the public from the pandemic,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korea Studies, told AFP.

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