Kim Jong Un slams pandemic response as North Korea outbreak surges

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has slammed officials for being slow to deliver medicines and ordered his army to deal with a surging but largely undiagnosed COVID-19 crisis that has left 1.2 million people with fevers and 50 deaths in a matter of days, officials said. The media said Monday.

Since late April, more than 564,860 people have been quarantined as a fever spreads rapidly in and around the capital, Pyongyang. Eight additional deaths and 392,920 new cases of fever were reported on Monday, the Northern Emergency Anti-Virus Headquarters said.

State media did not specify how many people were confirmed to have COVID-19, but North Korea is believed to lack sufficient testing supplies to confirm a large number of coronavirus infections and has largely relied on quarantining people with symptoms in shelters.

Failing to slow the spread of the virus could have dire consequences for North Korea, given its broken healthcare system and its believed 26 million people who are unvaccinated, malnourished and otherwise impoverished.

At a meeting of the ruling party’s Politburo on Sunday, Kim Jong-un criticized the government and health officials for what he described as a poor response to the pandemic, saying North Korea failed to distribute medicine supplies to pharmacies in a timely manner due to their “irresponsible working attitude” and lack of organization. The official Korean Central News Agency said.

The Politburo of the Central Committee has issued emergency orders to immediately release and quickly allocate the national drug stockpile and require pharmacies to open 24-hour shifts, but Kim said the measures were not properly implemented. Kim Jong-un ordered military medical units to participate in stabilizing Pyongyang’s supply of medicines, KCNA said.

After the meeting, Kim Jong-un and Politburo members went to a certain district in Pyongyang to inspect pharmacies on site. Kim Jong-un lamented that most pharmacies were in poor condition and lacked storage space, and criticized some pharmacists for not wearing appropriate white robes.

North Korea first acknowledged an outbreak of COVID-19 last Thursday, saying an unspecified number of people had tested positive for the omicron variant. It imposed a lockdown, with King ordering public health officials, teachers and others to identify people with a fever so they could be quarantined.

North Korea’s claim to have a perfect record of maintaining virus isolation for 2 1/2 years has been widely questioned. But its extremely strict border closures, mass quarantines and propaganda emphasizing antivirus controls as a “state presence” may have prevented a massive outbreak until now.

It is unclear whether North Korea’s urgent information about its outbreak indicates a willingness to accept outside help.

The country eschewed millions of doses of the vaccine from the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, likely because they meet international surveillance requirements.

South Korean President Yoon Se-yeol told parliament on Monday that South Korea is willing to send vaccines, medicines, equipment and health personnel to North Korea if South Korea is willing to accept it. So far, Pyongyang has not asked Seoul for help, South Korean officials said.

Since 2019, inter-Korean relations have deteriorated as larger talks between the U.S. and North Korea collapsed over disagreements over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and U.S.-led sanctions.

Kim Jong-un has previously praised China’s response to the outbreak and urged his officials to learn from it, a possible sign that North Korea is more willing to accept help from its key ally. Chinese officials said last week that Beijing was ready to help, but they had no information on making any such requests.

Even as he called for lockdowns of cities and counties to slow the spread of COVID-19, King emphasized that the country’s economic goals should be met, which could mean large groups will continue to congregate in agriculture, industry and construction sites.

Kim Jong-un has accelerated missile tests with brinkmanship aimed at pressuring Washington for economic and security concessions, but he has struggled with domestic challenges and a pandemic-battered economy that may have pushed him toward him The toughest moment of the decade in power.

In recent weeks, state media have highlighted an agricultural campaign to protect crops during droughts during the rice-growing season, a worrying development in a country that suffers chronic food shortages. Kim Jong-un also intends to achieve the goals set out in his five-year national development plan announced in early 2021, after showing unusual candor when he admitted that his previous economic plans had not worked.

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