North Korea on Saturday reported 21 new deaths and 174,440 more people with fever symptoms as the country struggles to curb the spread of COVID-19 among its unvaccinated population.

The new deaths and cases, which were from Friday, brought the total number to 27 deaths and 524,440 illnesses amid a rapid spread of the fever since late April. North Korea said 243,630 people had recovered and 280,810 remained in quarantine. State media did not specify how many of the fever cases and deaths were confirmed as COVID-19 infections.

The country imposed this Thursday what it described as maximum preventive measures after confirming its first cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. He had previously upheld for more than two years a widely disputed claim of a perfect record that warded off the virus that has spread to almost every corner of the world.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, during a meeting of the ruling party’s Politburo on Saturday, described the outbreak as a historic “major upheaval” and called for unity between the government and the people to stabilize the outbreak as quickly as possible.

During the meeting, the officials mainly discussed ways to quickly distribute medical supplies that the country has released from its emergency stockpiles, the official Pyongyang-based Korean Central News Agency said. In a report submitted to the Politburo, the North’s emergency epidemic office blamed most of the deaths on “mistakes like taking too many drugs, without scientific medical treatment.”

Kim, who said he was donating some of his private drug supplies to help the anti-virus campaign, expressed optimism that the country would be able to control the outbreak, saying most transmissions occur within communities that are isolated from each other and they do not spread. region to region.

He called on officials to learn lessons from other nations’ successful responses to the pandemic, choosing an example in China, the North’s main ally.

China, however, has been facing pressure to change its so-called “zero-COVID” strategy that has brought major cities to a standstill as it struggles to rein in the fast-moving omicron variant.

Since Thursday, North Korea has imposed measures aimed at restricting the movement of people and supplies between cities and counties, but descriptions of the measures in state media indicate that people are not confined to their homes.

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Experts say the failure to control the spread of COVID-19 could have devastating consequences in North Korea, considering the country’s poor health care system and its 26 million people largely unvaccinated.

Tests of virus samples collected on Sunday from an unspecified number of people with a fever in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, confirmed they were infected with the omicron variant, state media said. So far, the country has officially confirmed one death related to an omicron infection.

Short of vaccines, antiviral pills, intensive care units and other important health tools to combat the virus, North Korea’s pandemic response will mostly consist of isolating people with symptoms in designated shelters, experts say.

North Korea does not have the technological and other resources to impose extreme lockdowns like China, which has locked down entire cities and confined residents to their homes, nor could it afford to do so at the risk of triggering further shock to a fragile economy. , said. Hong Min, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

While calling for stricter preventive measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, Kim also stressed that the country’s economic goals must be met, which likely means large groups will continue to gather at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.

It is unusual for isolated North Korea to admit to an outbreak of any infectious disease, let alone one as threatening as COVID-19, as it is intensely proud and sensitive to outside perceptions of its “socialist utopia.” Experts disagree on whether the North’s announcement of the outbreak communicates a willingness to receive outside help.

The country had rejected millions of doses offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly due to concerns about the international monitoring requirements attached to those injections.

North Korea has a higher tolerance for civilian suffering than most other nations, and some experts say the country may be willing to accept a certain level of deaths to gain immunity through infection, rather than receiving vaccines and other outside help.

South Korea’s new conservative government led by President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office on Tuesday, has offered to send vaccines and other medical supplies to North Korea, but officials in Seoul say North Korea has so far not requested help. Relations between the rival Koreas have worsened since 2019 following a derailment in nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.

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However, Kim’s call for his officials to learn from China’s experience indicates that the North could soon request COVID-19-related drugs and test kits from China, said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. South.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Friday that Beijing was ready to offer help to North Korea, but said he had no information about such a request.

North Korea’s viral spread may have accelerated after an estimated tens of thousands of civilians and troops gathered for a massive military parade in Pyongyang on April 25, where Kim took center stage and displayed the most powerful missiles. of its military nuclear program.

After maintaining one of the world’s strictest border closures for two years to protect its failing health care system, North Korea reopened rail freight traffic with China in February ostensibly to ease pressure on its economy. But China confirmed the closure of the route last month as it battled COVID-19 outbreaks in border areas.

Hours after North Korea acknowledged its first COVID-19 infections on Thursday, the South Korean military detected that North Korea was testing three ballistic missiles in what appeared to be a defiant show of force.

Kim has been ramping up his weapons demonstrations in 2022, including the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile in nearly five years. Experts say Kim’s brinkmanship is aimed at forcing Washington to accept the idea of ​​the North as a nuclear power and negotiating the removal of crippling US-led sanctions and other concessions from a stronger position.

South Korean and US officials also say North Korea is possibly preparing to conduct its first nuclear test since 2017, which they say could happen as early as this month.

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