For more than two years, North Korea has maintained that Covid-19 has not entered its borders. That changed last week, when leader Kim Jong Un acknowledged an outbreak of the omicron variant that is spreading “explosively” through the population of 26 million.
As of Wednesday, the country had reported 62 deaths and more than 1.7 million cases of fever since the outbreak began in late April, according to the Associated Press. Of these, more than a million people have recovered and nearly 700,000 are in quarantine.
The outbreak comes as President Joe Biden is due to arrive in Seoul on Friday for a visit to South Korea and Japan, his first trip to Asia since taking office. The international response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and now its virus outbreak, will be a priority when he meets with the new leaders of those two countries.
Here’s what we know and don’t know about the outbreak in North Korea.
How serious is the epidemic?
It’s hard to know the true scale of the outbreak, not least because North Korea lacks the testing capacity to confirm most infections, labeling them as “fever cases” instead. The true numbers may also be higher as asymptomatic cases go undetected or officials want to minimize damage to Kim’s image.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, said on Tuesday that North Korea had not responded to a request for additional data on its outbreak.
“WHO is deeply concerned about the risk of the spread of Covid-19 in the country, particularly as the population is unvaccinated and many have underlying conditions, putting them at risk of serious illness and deaths,” he said at a news conference.
Officials also note that the uncontrolled spread of the virus in North Korea or elsewhere could lead to the emergence of new variants.
Kim criticized officials for their handling of the outbreak, citing their “non-positive attitude, laxity and inactivity”, the Associated Press said.
According to the 38 North website, the outbreak is concentrated in major cities in North Korea, including the capital, Pyongyang. About a third of the deaths have occurred among North Koreans aged 61 and older, and there have been at least eight deaths among infants and children up to age 10.
Although Kim ordered a nationwide lockdown, there are various exceptions for agriculture and other economic activities. May and June are traditionally the best months to plant rice, North Korea’s staple food, and the government doesn’t want to risk worsening food shortages, said Dominique Fraser, associate researcher at the Asia Society. Policy Institute based in Sydney.
“They realize it’s really bad in terms of the food supply,” she said.
Has North Korea really not had an outbreak so far?
Experts say that while North Korea is unlikely to have had no cases before, it is conceivable that this is the first major outbreak. Since the start of the pandemic, North Korea’s “zero-Covid” strategy has relied on isolation from the world, with borders firmly closed and almost all trade halted.
But the government held large-scale events in April, including a military parade that brought together around 20,000 people and marked the army’s 90th anniversary.
“It looks like it’s turned into a superspreader event,” Fraser said. “Since then, soldiers from all over the country who participated in this military parade have returned home and caught this fever.”
What does this mean for Kim?
The outbreak is unlikely to threaten the Kim regime, but it poses risks, said Christopher Green, senior consultant on the Korean Peninsula for the International Crisis Group. The outbreak and the measures to contain it have affected all economic classes, including the capital’s elite on whom Kim’s support depends and whose business interests have already been harmed by the pandemic restrictions.
“There’s a fair amount of pent-up frustration in Pyongyang over this fact, so if these people are angry or frustrated with their situation, it’s always a risk for Kim,” he said.
Although the highly transmissible omicron variant poses a major challenge to Kim’s pandemic strategy, changing course could be troublesome for a leader described as infallible.
“When a decision is made by the Supreme Leader, it’s a problem to say something has stopped working,” Green said.
Will North Korea receive aid?
Throughout the pandemic, North Korea has refused offers of aid from international groups, as well as individual countries like China, Russia and South Korea.
Dr Michael Ryan, head of the WHO’s emergencies programme, said on Tuesday that while the organization was ready to help both North Korea and Eritrea, the only other country that has not yet began to vaccinate its population, it “has no special powers to intervene in a sovereign state.
In the current outbreak, Pyongyang has so far failed to respond to an offer of help from South Korea’s new conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol. The United States says that while it supports international distribution programs like Covax, it has no intention of directly sharing vaccines with North Korea.
Reports said North Korea has sent planes to pick up medical supplies from across the border in China, whose strict response to the pandemic Kim has praised.
“North Korea likes to be able to say that it is self-sufficient and independent, but if outside help is needed, it is better to rely on China, which is a military ally of North Korea,” said researcher Tongfi Kim. senior at the KF-VUB Korea Chair in Brussels.
Kim said the outbreak was an opportunity for the United States and other countries to reconnect with North Korea after years of stalled denuclearization talks. But for purely humanitarian reasons, the West should be ready to offer whatever aid North Korea is willing to accept, even as it prepares for a possible seventh nuclear test, said Ankit Panda, the program’s senior researcher. nuclear policy at the Carnegie Endowment. for international peace.
“Quite simply, if North Korea tests its seventh nuclear device at 9 a.m. on any given day and requests pandemic-related assistance at 9:30 a.m., there should be no hesitation in responding positively — even if nuclear testing must be condemned,” he wrote in Foreign Policy this week.
What does the outbreak mean for North Korea’s weapons testing?
North Korea has launched weapons at an unusually frequent rate this year, including its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017. It is expected to test another ICBM or even a nuclear device as soon as month as it attempts to force the international community to accept it as a nuclear power and secure relief from crippling US-led sanctions.
The country tends to become more aggressive when it’s internally unstable, Green said, suggesting weapons testing could continue. On the same day it announced the virus outbreak, North Korea launched three short-range ballistic missiles in its 16th round of tests this year.
But the outbreak is a “black swan” event that could change Kim’s calculations, Green warned. Weapons testing involves large gatherings of people and, in the interest of slowing transmission of the virus, Kim may choose to delay further launches until cases have cleared. Testing an ICBM or nuclear device before or during Biden’s trip to Asia would also make it much harder for the United States to offer assistance to the outbreak.
“We cannot be absolutely certain that past precedent regarding [North Korea’s] actions will continue to guide decisions tomorrow,” he said.