North Korea reported its first COVID-19-linked deaths Friday, one day after it acknowledged a coronavirus outbreak within its borders. It also said hundreds of thousands of people had come down with a fever of unknown origin since late April.
Pyongyang’s official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) said one of six people who died after showing symptoms had the BA.2 omicron subvariant. Up to 187,800 patients were being “isolated and treated” including 18,000 cases recorded across the country in just the previous day.
It is unprecedented reporting from a state that until recently had insisted it was maintaining a status of “zero” COVID-19 cases, broadcasting about disinfection efforts on state TV for months alongside news briefs on how the “malicious virus” was crippling other parts of the globe.
Visiting the state-run emergency epidemic-prevention headquarters Thursday, North Korea leader Kim Jong Un criticized its system as having a “vulnerable point,” noting the capital city was emerging as the center of transmission.
The month of April held two significant anniversaries — the 110th anniversary of North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung’s birth on April 15, followed 10 days later by the 90th Military Foundation Day. The events drew massive, unmasked crowds to tight spaces in Pyongyang, now the center of the wave of infections.
KCNA’s latest COVID-19 situation report indicated that fewer than half of an estimated 350,000 people sickened by the fever’s “explosive” spread have recovered. Experts fear the actual number of people impacted is even higher.
As the news carried by KCNA sank in, a spokesperson for South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said the administration stands ready to assist North Korea with vaccines and other medical supplies.
“It’s worse than it appears,” a second presidential official told reporters, without providing details. “It is not a simple problem.”
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the Seoul-based University of North Korean Studies, told VOA that Pyongyang’s voluntary disclosure of a severe COVID-19 situation appears to have two objectives.
“North Korea publicized its COVID-19 situation likely because, one, it requires the engagement of its people in order to overcome the virus,” he said. “And two, it was indirectly sending a message to the international community, that if it came to it, it would need help.”
Answering reporters’ questions on whether working-level talks would be initiated, President Yoon on Friday said, “Of course. We’ll start with channels at our Unification Ministry.”
Yoon’s pledge came after Kwon Young-se, his nominee for unification minister in Yoon’s new cabinet, said during a confirmation hearing that he would push for humanitarian assistance for the North, including COVID treatment, syringes and other medical supplies.
North Korea remained unresponsive to overtures from the previous Moon Jae-in government after the highly trumpeted U.S.-North Korea Singapore Summit of 2018 fell apart. Now some in Seoul are cautiously optimistic that South Korea’s successful strategies for battling omicron could, given the circumstances, be shared as part of broader efforts to facilitate a peninsular thaw.
“The Yoon Suk-yeol government has said it would practice a ‘principles-based’ North Korea policy with the South Korea-U.S. alliance as its foundation,” said professor Yang.
While many of Seoul’s top officials maintain a worldview of “denuclearization first, inter-Korean exchange second,” Yang added, they’ve also expressed a willingness to separate humanitarian assistance from political and military issues.
“Thus, I view a potential cooperation effort on COVID-19 as a starting point for bringing inter-Korean dialogue back to life,” he said.
North Korea has yet to take practical steps toward seeking outside help. The World Health Organization’s DPRK representative Edwin Salvador told VOA Korean this week the office has yet to receive an official report from Pyongyang’s health ministry on the state’s COVID-19 cases or related deaths. Although there are currently no vaccines earmarked for North Korea, he said the WHO was committed to working with state authorities.
North Korea so far appears to be sticking to its long-established cultural ideology of self-reliance. Addressing officials at the epidemic-prevention headquarters in Pyongyang, KCNA reported, Kim Jong Un expressed his conviction that North Korea would “perfectly block and terminate” sources of the virus and lead a “breakthrough victory in the great epidemic-prevention campaign.”
U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to visit South Korea and Japan from May 20-24 and hold talks with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts. North Korea will be “front and center in the agenda” for talks with Yoon, said White House spokesperson Jen Psaki on Monday. Authorities in Seoul and Washington have warned that Pyongyang is planning another nuclear test in the future, a move that would irritate even its closest allies, China and Russia.
“North Korea looks to have completed preparations for a nuclear test,” Yoon’s spokesperson told reporters Friday. “But before they conduct a nuclear test, there is a possibility it would test a series of missiles first.”
Noticeably absent from KCNA’s Friday coverage were reports of three projectiles Pyongyang launched into waters east of the Korean Peninsula on Thursday, which the South Korean military said were short-range ballistic missiles. It marks the third straight missile test that North Korea’s state media has failed to report.
“They probably have not mentioned it because the missiles were not the finalized advanced missiles North Korea is aiming for, but tests toward completing the advanced missile,” said Yang of the University of North Korean Studies. “The leadership likely made an internal decision that it would be unnecessary to make the tests an issue.”