North Korea confirmed its first Covid-19 death on Friday, reporting that a fever of unknown origin had been spreading “explosively” across the reclusive nation since late April, infecting about 350,000 people.
The nuclear-armed country only broke its silence on its Covid-19 outbreak on Thursday, declaring the “gravest national emergency” and enforcing nationwide lockdowns.
North Korea previously claimed to have completely wiped out the virus by sealing its borders. Experts have warned of an impending Covid catastrophe fuelled by its failure to vaccinate, ailing public health system and widespread malnutrition that has weakened much of its 25-million-strong population.
“For Pyongyang to publicly admit omicron cases, the public health situation must be serious,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, told the Associated Press.
Reports in the state-controlled Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) suggested the country was already facing a dire situation.
"A fever whose cause couldn't be identified explosively spread nationwide from late April," it said.
"On May 12 alone, some 18,000 persons with fever occurred nationwide and as of now up to 187,800 people are being isolated and treated," it said, adding that of the 350,000 people who developed fevers since late April, 162,200 had recovered.
KCNA reported six deaths, including one linked with the omicron variant. It is feared that a lack of testing capabilities may be obscuring the true scale of the outbreak.
A massive military parade in Pyongyang on April 25, marking the founding of the army, may have been a superspreader event, accelerating the transmission of the virus in the capital.
Kim Jong-un took centre stage at the nighttime parade, showcasing the most powerful missiles of his nuclear programme, including the Hwasong-17 – an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the US – in front of an audience of tens of thousands.
"Holding a military parade attended by a large crowd, when omicron was raging in neighbouring China, shows Pyongyang was overconfident in their capabilities to fight and prevent the virus," Cheong Seong-chang of Seoul’s Sejong Institute, told AFP, predicting "major chaos" to come.
In what may have been a show of strength to distract from the Covid crisis, North Korea launched three short-range ballistic missiles toward the sea on Thursday. It was the North’s 16th round of missile launches this year.
Mr Kim, who appeared in public wearing a mask for the first time on Thursday, also inspected the state emergency epidemic prevention headquarters, the KCNA reported, adding that he “criticised” the failure to prevent the outbreak.
"The simultaneous spread of fever with the capital area as a centre shows that there is a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system," he was quoted as saying.
Kim called on all provinces, cities and counties to lock down their areas to prevent the further spread of the "malicious virus,” urging public health authorities to monitor all patients with fever symptoms and bolster medical supplies.
China, Pyongyang’s only major ally, and South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, both said they were willing to provide medical assistance and other help to North Korea.
Pyongyang has not responded to the offer but in recent months has repeatedly rebuffed efforts by China and the United Nations to help vaccinate its population.
Kim may now be facing the worst crisis of his rule, as a potential Covid disaster compounds an already worsening food security crisis.
Analysts say a nationwide lockdown would hamper ongoing anti-drought efforts and the country’s “all-out fight” to combat alarming food shortages due to pandemic border closures and last year’s typhoons.
State media said last week that factory labourers and even office workers and government officials had been dispatched to help improve farming facilities and secure water resources across the country.
But Ji Seong-ho, a South Korean politician who defected from the North in 2006, warned the virus could spread rapidly due partly to the lack of a working medical system.
"The COVID outbreak could hit the ongoing farming season hard, and food security might become really serious this year and next," he told a parliamentary session.