Experts are questioning North Korea’s reported death toll from a Covid-19 outbreak, with the isolated country claiming on Friday that nearly 10% of its 26 million people had become ill, with 65 people dying.
North Korea says an unidentified fever has been spreading across the country since late last month, after admitting to the Omicron outbreak last week after more than two years of claiming to be coronavirus-free. Its anti-epidemic center has since published daily tallies of people reporting symptoms but no confirmed Covid-19 cases.
Some observers believe North Korea was forced to acknowledge the Covid-19 outbreak because it could not conceal the highly contagious viral spread among its people without risking public dissatisfaction with leader Kim Jong-un.
“It’s true that there has been a hole in its two-and-a-half years of pandemic fighting,” said Kwak Gil-sup, head of One Korea Centre, a website specializing in North Korean affairs. But, as the saying goes, North Korea is a “theatre state,” and I believe they are massaging Covid-19 statistics.”
According to Mr Kwak, North Korea may be using the outbreak as a propaganda tool to demonstrate that it is overcoming the pandemic under Mr Kim’s leadership. However, if the pandemic worsens, the country has “Plan B” and “Plan C” to seek Chinese and other foreign aid, he said.
North Korea’s state emergency epidemic prevention headquarters announced on Friday that 263,370 more people had feverish symptoms and two more died, bringing the total number of “fever” cases to 2.24 million and deaths to 65. According to the official Korean Central News Agency, 754,810 people are still quarantined.
The outbreak was most likely caused by a military parade held in Pyongyang on April 25 to show off Mr Kim’s new missiles and loyal troops. Tens of thousands of people and soldiers from Pyongyang and other parts of the country attended the parade and other related festivities to commemorate North Korea’s army foundation anniversary.
South Korean security agents told lawmakers on Thursday that “a significant number” of the fever cases reported by North Korea include people infected with waterborne diseases like measles, typhoid, and whooping cough.
According to Ha Tae-keung, a politician who attended a private NIS briefing, the National Intelligence Service believes those diseases were spreading across North Korea even before Covid-19 broke out. According to Mr Ha, the NIS, waterborne diseases are spreading due to a lack of medicines and medical supplies.
According to Mr Ha, the NIS “said it doesn’t know exactly what percentage of the fever cases are coronavirus patients.”
“North Korea, it said, lacks coronavirus diagnostic kits but appears to have enough thermometers.”
The NIS has a patchy record of confirming North Korean developments. Some civilian medical experts had previously stated that they believed the majority of the fever cases reported by the North were Covid-19.
Ryu Yong-chol, an official at Pyongyang’s anti-virus headquarters, said on state TV on Monday, when the North’s fever cases had already surpassed 1.2 million, that the government had detected 168 Covid-19 cases as of last Saturday. There have been no updates on the virus cases in the North since.
According to Ahn Kyung-su, the head of a North Korean health website, Pyongyang likely determined its Omicron outbreak would not result in a large number of deaths but disclosed it to avoid public outrage. He claimed that North Korea’s increased anti-virus measures were intended to strengthen its grip on a public weary of previous restrictions and other difficulties.
“As people die as a result of North Korea’s pandemic response, “Mr. Ahn stated. “However, it is clear that its leadership’s political intentions have been included there. They’ll celebrate their victory over Covid-19 in a big way one day.”
There are still concerns about the quality of North Korea’s public medical system, and experts believe the country could face a pandemic if it does not receive outside aid. According to them, the country’s increased movement restrictions and quarantine rules may also lead to widespread hunger.
According to Mr Ha and Kim Byung-kee, another politician briefed by the NIS, North Korea intends to overcome the pandemic with assistance from its main ally, China. Mr Kim stated at an anti-virus meeting on Saturday that his country was facing “a great upheaval” and that officials needed to study how China and other countries dealt with the pandemic.
Some media outlets reported this week that North Korea sent planes to China to bring back emergency supplies, but the South Korean government stated that such reports could not be confirmed. South Korea and the US have offered to ship vaccines, medicines, and other medical supplies to North Korea, but the North has yet to respond.