SEOUL — North Korea announced an “explosive” coronavirus outbreak on Friday, with six dead and 350,000 potential cases across the country since April, providing a glimpse into just how quickly the virus could be spreading inside a country that has yet to immunize its population.
Just one day after the country admitted that covid had finally reached it, state media outlets called the outbreak a “public health crisis,” though its extent remains unclear. North Korea’s low immunity to the virus and poor health-care infrastructure have raised concerns among experts that it could become an epicenter for new variants.
North Korea’s latest announcement underscores its vulnerability to the highly contagious BA.2 omicron subvariant, which was responsible for sharp surges of the virus in South Korea, the United States and elsewhere. Vaccines have been highly effective at preventing serious infections and death from omicron, but North Korea is one of only two countries without a vaccine program. The other is Eritrea.
North Korea’s Central News Agency (KCNA) said Friday that nearly 190,000 people remain in quarantine, while 162,000 of the more than 350,000 who had fever symptoms have recovered. The agency said one of the six people who died had tested positive for BA.2.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who ordered a nationwide lockdown following the announcement of the country’s first official coronavirus case Thursday, was quoted by KCNA as saying the spreading infections were a “grave sign of lapses in our anti-epidemic system.” The authoritarian leader appeared in public wearing a mask for the first time Thursday.
For more than two years, as the pandemic raged around the world, North Korea had maintained that it was free from infections. But experts say the virus was probably spreading in the country well before Pyongyang’s official announcement this week.
North Korea’s “zero covid” policy included stringent quarantine measures and a closed border over the past two years, which resulted in health and food crises, according to a report by a panel of experts convened by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
It dramatically reduced land-based trade along its border with China, its biggest trading partner, restricting the availability of food, supplies and cash. North Korea has also banned diplomats, tourists or humanitarian aid groups from entering the country.
“Most North Koreans are chronically malnourished and unvaccinated, there are barely any medicines left in the country, and the health infrastructure is incapable of dealing with this pandemic,” said Lina Yoon, senior Korea researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Pyongyang also has repeatedly rebuffed Seoul’s offers of help. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol announced on Friday plans to provide vaccine and medical aid to North Korea, spokeswoman Kang In-sun said. North Korea didn’t request the aid, Yoon’s office said, adding that it will seek consultations with the North on how to deliver it.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Thursday that it is prepared to “go all out to provide support and assistance to the DPRK in fighting the virus,” though it is unclear whether North Korea would accept aid along the border because of its fears of the virus transmitting through shipments from China.
Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea analyst at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said the omicron variant will cause “chaos” in North Korea for up to a year.
“For the time being, however, North Korea is not expected to accept coronavirus aid from the outside, especially the Western world,” he said.
Despite the outbreak, North Korea is unlikely to give up its plans to test missiles and nuclear weapons, which can be used to boost the public’s morale amid a health crisis, Cheong said.
On Thursday, hours after declaring its first coronavirus outbreak, North Korea fired three short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast, according to the South Korean military.
Seoul’s National Security Office slammed the tests in a Thursday statement, saying North Korea had “turned a blind eye to the lives and safety of its people and continued ballistic missile provocations” despite the rapid spread of the virus.
Michelle Ye Hee Lee in Tokyo contributed to this report.