Omicron is sweeping through North Korea
Almost 300,000 more people have come down with symptoms of Covid-19 in North Korea as the country entered the fourth day of a draconian nationwide lockdown aimed at stopping its first officially acknowledged Covid-19 outbreak, state-run media reported on Sunday.
According to the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), approximately 296,180 people nationwide came down with fever symptoms between Friday evening and Saturday at 6 p.m., while 15 more had died.
The total number of people who have shown fever symptoms between the end of April and Saturday is around 820,620, of which 496,030 have recovered, according to the news agency. Some 324,550 are receiving treatment, while a total of 42 people have died.
Since the outbreak was officially admitted last Thursday, the North has recorded an unusually high rate in the increase of daily infections, with 18,000 people reporting Covid-19 symptoms on Thursday and 174,400 on Friday.
State media has blamed deaths on flawed administration of medication due to “a lack of understanding” of the contagion and appropriate treatment methods.
“Since the outbreak of the current infectious disease crisis, a large proportion of deaths resulted from careless drug use arising from people's lack of understanding on how to treat stealth Omicron infections,” KCNA reported.
The agency reported that the country is taking “swift state emergency measures.
“All provinces, cities and counties of the country have been totally locked down and working units, production units and residential units have been sealed off from each other since the morning of May 12 and strict and intensive examination of all the people is being conducted,” KCNA reported on Sunday.
The reports of a full-blown Covid-19 outbreak is a drastic change from the North’s repeated claims since January 2020 that the country had detected zero cases within its borders.
Pyongyang seems to have prevented a major Covid-19 outbreak through extreme measures to seal itself off, including shutting its land borders with China, over which the bulk of the country’s trade is conducted.
The current outbreak signals a failure by the regime to prevent the virus, and particularly the highly contagious Omicron variant, from seeping in, as well as missteps that have allowed it to spread.
External observers believe that mass rallies and parades marking key regime and military anniversaries in April and May could have contributed to the spread, particularly in Pyongyang, where the largest celebrations were held.
One of the key holidays last month was April 15, observed in the country as the Day of the Sun, or the birth of leader Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, founder of the regime Kim Il Sung.
Another major holiday was April 25, which celebrates the founding of the North’s armed forces.
As April 15 and 25 this year fell on the 110th and 90th anniversaries of the commemorated events, the Workers’ Party Politburo adopted a resolution in January decreeing that the corresponding festivities should be especially grand. The North has traditionally feted every fifth and 10th political anniversary with larger events.
While it is difficult to trace the exact route of viral transmission in the North, the first acknowledged cases appear to coincide with the massive military parade held on April 25 to cap off a month of political holidays.
The parade, which took place in Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang, involved mass contact between large numbers of people. The festivities involved tens of thousands of marching soldiers, students and work units, not to mention residents expected to be in attendance.
According to state media reports, leader Kim was present for 20 group photographs with youth from all over the country. Approximately 1,200 people were gathered for each commemorative photo, with none wearing a mask.
Experts say that these events are likely to have triggered the spread of Covid-19.
“Intoxicated by the success of the [April 25] military parade, the North Korean regime became careless,” said Lim Eum-cheol, a professor at Kyungnam University's Institute for Far Eastern Studies. “The large-scale photo sessions appear to have become Covid-19 super-spreading events.”
Lim added that while suspected cases of Covid-19 arose in the North shortly after a military parade last September marking the 73rd anniversary of the regime’s establishment, the experience of passing that event without a serious outbreak appear to have lulled the North Korean regime into a sense of false security.
While some observers believe North Korea is allowing its domestic media to report on the current outbreak in order to appeal for vaccine aid from the international community, others believe that the reports are aimed at boosting internal solidarity and preempting domestic unrest at the strict lockdown measures.
The outbreak has not stopped Kim from ordering officials to push forward with major state-led construction and agricultural projects.
Pyongyang also launched three ballistic missiles on Thursday, suggesting not even Covid-19 would stop ongoing missile tests.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry said in a press release Sunday that South Korea “is preparing to make a formal offer of practical assistance to help with the North’s anti-disease measures,” although it acknowledged that contact had not yet been made.
President Yoon Suk-yeol also said Friday that his government was prepared to supply the North with vaccine aid and medicines necessary to deal with the budding Covid-19 crisis.
“We are aware that cases tied to Covid-19 have exploded in North Korea,” an official at the presidential office told the JoongAng Ilbo on condition of anonymity. “We will negotiate specific aid with the North,” he added.
Such aid is likely to include vaccines, anti-fever medication, and test kits, according to the official.
BY MICHAEL LEE [email@example.com]