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What will the world do as COVID-19 spreads ‘explosively’ in North Korea?

SEOUL, South Korea – The coronavirus has been spreading through North Korea “explosively” since late last month, killing six people and leaving 187,800 people in quarantinereported the country’s state media on Friday.

Health officials admitted an emerging public health crisis after the country reported its first outbreak of the virus, after long insisting it had no infections and refusing to receive external humanitarian aid to combat any spread.

A man watches a report on the launch of a North Korean missile at a station in Seoul, South Korea, on May 13, 2022. .EFE/EPA/JEON HEON-KYUN

A man watches a report on the launch of a North Korean missile at a station in Seoul, South Korea, on May 13, 2022. .EFE/EPA/JEON HEON-KYUN

The announcement of the deaths came when the country’s leader, Kim Jong Unwas visiting the national disease control headquarters on Thursday, the official North Korean Central News Agency said.

In a sign of growing urgency, state Central Television first showed Kim with a mask during a Workers’ Party meeting.

Kim criticized his health officials, saying the simultaneous spread of the fever, with the capital at the center of the outbreak, “shows that there is a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system,” the North Korean news agency said.

Some analysts warned that North Korea could be headed for a major humanitarian crisis unless the international community convinces it to open up to foreign aid to combat the virus.

“We are in the early stages of the spread of human misery,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea expert at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.

“The nature and scale of disease, death, famine and starvation can only be established much later.”

North Korea said it learned of its first outbreak after health officials on Sunday tested people in Pyongyang, the capital, who showed symptoms including fever.

They were infected with the BA.2 subvariant of the virus, he said.

The country declared a “maximum emergency” and ordered all cities and counties in the nation of 25 million to close, telling them to isolate “every work unit, production unit, and residential unit from one another.”

North Korea said 350,000 people had a fever since late April, including 18,000 on Thursday.

It added that 162,200 people had fully recovered.

Reports of the outbreak so far have been vague, blaming “a fever whose cause could not be identified.”

They did not clarify, for example, how many people with a fever had tested positive for the virus.

But they said that one of the six who died had tested positive for the BA.2 subvariant.

“Like any other data from North Korea, the figures are subject to debate and we cannot fully trust them,” said Ahn Kyung-su, who runs DPRKHealth.org, a Seoul-based website and network of Public Health Experts Studying North Korea.

“But what is clear is that North Korea has the COVID phenomenon, and by releasing those numbers, North Korea seems to be sending signals that it is finally ready to accept foreign aid related to COVID.”

So far, North Korea has not accepted any COVID-19 vaccine donations from global health organizations.

South Korean officials hope the humanitarian ships, including vaccines, could help restart diplomatic dialogue between North Korea and the United States and its allies.

The danger posed by the COVID outbreak is greater in North Korea than in most other nations because most of its people they are not vaccinated.

In addition, the outbreak could increase the pressure on the economywhich has already been hit by years of United Nations sanctions and North Korea’s decision two years ago to close its border with China, its only major trading partner.

“North Koreans are chronically undernourished and unvaccinated, there are hardly any medicines left in the country, and the health infrastructure is unable to cope with this pandemic,” said Lina Yoon, senior Korea researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“The international community should offer medicine for symptoms related to COVID-19, antiviral medicine for the treatment of COVID-19, and provide vaccines and all necessary infrastructure for the preservation of vaccines, including refrigerators, generators, and gasoline.”

Hours after admitting to the outbreak on Thursday, North Korea launched three ballistic missiles from near Pyongyang into the sea off its east coast.

Was the missile test number 16 from North Korea this year.

In South Korea, the government of newly inaugurated President Yoon Suk-yeol condemned the test as a “serious threat” and “provocation”, and accused the North of “duplicity” for testing weapons while its people were threatened by the coronavirus. .

But he said he was willing to send vaccines, therapeutics and other aid humanitarian to the North.

In Washington, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said “the United States currently has no plans to share vaccines” with North Korea.

He said the country “continued to exploit its own citizens” through its policy of not accepting humanitarian aid during the pandemic.

“Instead, they divert resources to build their illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” Psaki said, repeating Washington’s assessment that North Korea could be ready to conduct a nuclear test as early as this month.

President Joe Biden is scheduled to meet Yoon in Seoul on May 21

c.2022 The New York Times Company

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