SEOUL, South Korea — Six people have died and 350,000 have been treated for a fever that has spread “explosively” across North Korea, state media said Friday, a day after acknowledging a COVID-19 outbreak for the first time in the pandemic .
The official North Korean central news agency said that of the 350,000 people who have developed a fever since late April, 162,200 have recovered. On Thursday alone, 18,000 people were first found with fever symptoms, and 187,800 people are being isolated for treatment.
One of the six people who died was infected with the omicron variant, KCNA said, but it wasn’t immediately clear how many of the total illnesses were COVID-19.
North Korea imposed a nationwide lockdown on Thursday after acknowledging the first cases of COVID-19. Those reports said tests on an unspecified number of people came back positive for the ommicron variant.
It is possible that the spread of the virus was accelerated by a massive military parade in Pyongyang on April 25, where North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took center stage and presented the most powerful missiles of his military nuclear program in front of tens 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 until 2023, causing major disruption in the ill-equipped country.
Some experts say the North’s first announcement indicates it is ready to receive outside help.
The North last year shunned millions of injections offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, including doses of AstraZeneca and China’s Sinovac vaccines, possibly due to questions about their effectiveness and reluctance to accept monitoring requirements. The country lacks the extremely cold storage systems needed for mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Thursday that Beijing is offering North Korea help in dealing with the outbreak.
“As a comrade, neighbor and friend, China stands ready to provide full support and assistance to the DPRK in the fight against the epidemic,” Zhao told reporters during a daily briefing, using the initials for North Korea’s official name. the People’s Democratic Republic. from Korea.
The South Korean Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said the South was willing to provide medical and other aid to North Korea on humanitarian grounds.
KCNA said Kim was briefed about the fever outbreak when he visited the epidemic prevention headquarters on Thursday and criticized officials for failing to prevent “a vulnerability in the epidemic prevention system.”
He said the spread of the fever is centered around the capital Pyongyang and underlined the importance of isolating all work and residential units from each other and providing residents with all comforts during the lockdown.
North Korea’s claim that it had a perfect track record of keeping the virus out for two and a half years has been widely questioned. But it was believed to have avoided a massive outbreak thus far, in part because it instituted strict virus controls almost from the start of the pandemic.
The strict border closures and other measures have further eroded an economy already damaged by decades of mismanagement and crippling US-led sanctions on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, causing Kim to experience perhaps the most difficult moment of his rule.
Hours after confirming the COVID-19 outbreak Thursday, North Korea launched three short-range ballistic missiles toward the sea in what may have been intended as a display of its strength. It was the North’s 16th rocket launch this year.
Citing North Korea’s shunning of the COVAX vaccines, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the United States supports international relief efforts but has no intention of sharing its vaccine stocks with the North.
“We continue to support international efforts aimed at providing critical humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable North Koreans, and this is, of course, a wider section of the DPRK that continues to exploit its own citizens by not accepting this type of aid,” said Psaki Thursday in Washington.
“It’s not just vaccines. It is also a series of humanitarian aid that could greatly help the people and the country, and instead they would use resources to build their illegitimate nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”
Associated Press journalist Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.