Kim Tong-hyung and Hyung-jin Kim, The Associated Press

Posted Thursday, May 12, 2022 7:07 pm EDT

Last updated Thursday, May 12, 2022 11:33 PM EDT

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – Six people have died and 350,000 have been treated for a fever that has spread “explosively” in North Korea, state media said on Friday, a day after acknowledging an outbreak of COVID-19. for the first time in the country. pandemic.

North Korea likely does not have enough COVID-19 tests and other medical equipment and said it was not aware of the case of mass fevers. But a large outbreak of COVID-19 could be devastating in a country with a broken health care system and a population that is malnourished and unvaccinated.

North Korea’s official Central News Agency said that of the 350,000 people who developed a fever since late April, 162,200 have recovered. He said 18,000 people were recently found with fever symptoms on Thursday alone, and 187,800 people are being isolated for treatment.

One of the six people who died was confirmed to be infected with the omicron variant, KCNA said, but it was not immediately clear how many of the total illnesses were COVID-19.

North Korea imposed a nationwide lockdown on Thursday after acknowledging its first cases of COVID-19. Those reports said an unspecified number of people tested positive for the omicron variant.

The spread of the virus may have been accelerated by a massive military parade in Pyongyang on April 25, where North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took center stage and displayed the most powerful missiles from his military nuclear program in front of dozens of of thousands.

Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, said the pace of the fever’s spread suggests the crisis could last for months and possibly as late as 2023, causing major upheavals in the poorly equipped country.

Some experts say the North’s initial announcement communicates a willingness to receive outside help.

Last year, the North rejected millions of injections offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, including doses of AstraZeneca and Chinese Sinovac vaccines, possibly due to doubts about their effectiveness and unwillingness to agree to monitoring requirements. The country lacks the extreme cold storage systems required for mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Thursday that Beijing was offering help to North Korea in dealing with the outbreak.

“As a comrade, neighbor and friend, China stands ready to provide full support and assistance to the DPRK in fighting the epidemic,” Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing, using the initials of North Korea’s official name, Democratic People’s Republic. from Korea

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said the South was willing to provide medical and other aid to North Korea based on humanitarian considerations.

KCNA said Kim was briefed on the fever outbreak when he visited the emergency epidemic prevention headquarters on Thursday and criticized officials for failing to prevent “a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system.”

He said the spread of the fever has been centered around the capital Pyongyang, stressing the importance of isolating all work and residential units from each other and providing residents with all the comforts during the lockdown.

“It is the most important challenge and supreme tasks facing our party to reverse the immediate public health crisis situation at an early date, restore the stability of epidemic prevention, and protect the health and well-being of our people,” Kim said. cited by KCNA.

North Korea’s claim of a perfect record in keeping the virus at bay for two and a half years was widely questioned. But he was believed to have prevented a major outbreak until now, in part because he instituted strict virus controls almost from the start of the pandemic.

Strict border closures and other measures further battered an economy already damaged by decades of mismanagement and crippling US-led sanctions on North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs, thrusting Kim into the most difficult moment of his rule.

Hours after confirming the COVID-19 outbreak on Thursday, North Korea launched three short-range ballistic missiles into the sea in what was possibly intended as a show of force. It was North Korea’s 16th round of missile launches this year.

Citing North Korea’s rejection of COVAX vaccines, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the United States supports international relief efforts but does not plan to share its vaccine supplies with North Korea.

“We continue to support international efforts to provide critical humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable North Koreans, and this is, of course, a broader part of the DPRK that continues to exploit its own citizens by not accepting this type of aid. ”, Psaki said Thursday in Washington.

“It’s not just the vaccines. It is also a range of humanitarian assistance that could greatly help the people and the country and instead divert resources to build their illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”

Associated Press writer Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.

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