North Korea Identifies More COVID-19 Cases as It Copes with Medicine Shortage

North Korea reported more than 392,000 new fever cases detected Sunday, as an additional eight deaths brought the toll of known deaths in its “explosive” fever epidemic to 50, according to state media. Data released by official KCNA on Monday said a cumulative 1,213,550 people in the North had been sickened by the “fever of unknown origins,” since late April through 6 p.m. the previous day. More than half a million people were under medical treatment, while more than 648,630 others had recovered, it said. The number of confirmed COVID-19 patients had also risen to at least 168, North Korean state television KCTV said on Monday, belatedly reporting counts registered through 6 p.m. Saturday. It said Pyongyang remained the epicenter accounting for a quarter of the cases at 42, while 20 others were confirmed in North Pyongan Province, bordering China. Concerning deaths accounted for through Saturday, 22 were caused by symptoms and 17 medical side effects, KCTV said, and that more than half were people in their 50s and older. Among them were also six children under 10 years old. Another emergency meeting of the Workers’ Party political bureau was held Sunday, KCNA said, where leader Kim Jong Un heavily criticized a delay in the transfer of medicines from state reserves to pharmacies, which were instructed to be open 24-hours-a-day over the weekend. It said Kim issued an order to immediately mobilize the party’s Central Military Commission to help stabilize the supply of medicine in Pyongyang, including dispatching the “powerful forces of the People’s Army.” Kim also called for “vigilance in the acute anti-epidemic war,” reprimanding the Cabinet and public officials for their “irresponsible work attitude and executing ability.” North Korea raised its COVID-19 readiness to a “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system” last Thursday when for the first time in the pandemic, it recognized the presence of the “malicious virus” within its borders. Analysis of samples taken from a group of fever-ridden people in Pyongyang produced one case of the coronavirus subvariant BA.2, also known as the “stealth” omicron variant because it contains genetic mutations making it hard to discern from delta variant, health experts say. KCNA said, during an on-site inspection of local pharmacies later Sunday, Kim found them to be in sub-standard condition, lacking storage space other than the display cases and noting some pharmacists not wearing white gowns. KCTV over the weekend offered self-treatment advice such as keeping mouths clean by frequently rinsing with saltwater. Its main broadsheet, Rodong Sinmun, also encouraged people to eat fruits rich in vitamin C and to avoid grilled and oily foods that are harder to digest. Calling SOS China has sent an advance medical team into North Korea, according to a South Korean broadcaster YTN, in what would be the first dispatch of people across the China-North Korea border, mostly sealed since February 2020 due to the global outbreak of COVID-19. The team of around 10 people had been dispatched over the weekend after Pyongyang reached out for quarantine assistance, the YTN reported Monday citing unnamed sources in Beijing. Yonhap News also reported Sunday that the North had requested COVID-19 supplies and equipment from Beijing, though specifics were unknown. North Korea leader Kim Jong Un last Saturday had called on his officials to draw lessons from the experience of advanced countries, singling out China as having attained an “abundance” of quarantine achievements. New South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in his first parliamentary address Monday reiterated his government’s willingness to send humanitarian assistance in the form of vaccines, medical supplies and medical personnel to North Korea. Should North Korea reach out for help, Seoul would not hold back on needed support, he said. A spokesperson at Seoul’s Unification Ministry, soon after the address, told reporters the agency would “swiftly” contact North Korea to determine what the reclusive state needs to fight the rapidly growing transmission of what is suspected to be COVID-19. He added the ministry conducted assessments over the weekend on what supplies are available and when they would be ready to be sent. The U.S. State Department said it had no plans to send direct medical assistance to North Korea, but that it would support a decision by COVAX — a global vaccine-sharing program led by the U.N. and other health organizations with the aim of donating COVID-19 vaccines to low- and middle-income countries — to allocate doses to Pyongyang. It urged North Korea to work with the international community to promptly vaccinate its estimated 26 million people.

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