Kim slams North Korea’s pandemic response, deploys troops

Kim Jong-un slammed North Korea’s pandemic response and ordered the military to help distribute medicines, state media said on Monday, as the country said 50 people had died since the Covid-19 outbreak was first reported.

More than a million people are still sick with what Pyongyang calls a “fever” despite a nationwide lockdown ordered by Kim Jong Un to slow the spread of the disease among the unvaccinated, state media said.

To show how serious the situation could be, Kim Jong-il “strongly criticized” medical officials for what he called a botched response to the outbreak — particularly the failure to keep pharmacies open 24/7 to dispense medicines.

He ordered the army to start work to “immediately stabilize the supply of medicines in the capital, Pyongyang,” where Omicron was found in North Korea’s first reported Covid-19 case last week.

Kim Jong-un has put himself front and center in North Korea’s disease response, overseeing an almost daily Politburo emergency meeting on the outbreak, which he said was causing “tremendous unrest” in the country.

Kim said the failure to distribute medicines was “because officials from the cabinet and the public health department responsible for supply did not roll up their sleeves and properly recognize the current crisis,” state media KCNA reported.

The Korean Central News Agency said that Kim Jong-un visited the pharmacy in person and “strongly criticized the irresponsible working attitude of the cabinet and the public health department.”

He also criticized lapses in official legal oversight, pointing to “some negative aspects of the handling and sale of medicines across the country.”

Experts say North Korea has one of the worst healthcare systems in the world, with poorly equipped hospitals, few intensive care units and no coronavirus treatment or mass testing capacity.

“While visiting a pharmacy, Kim Jong-un saw with his own eyes the shortage of medicines in North Korea,” Cheong Seong-jang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, told AFP.

“He may have guessed it, but it could be more serious than he thought.”

As of May 15, a total of 50 people have died, including 1,213,550 “fever” cases, and more than 500,000 people are currently receiving treatment, KCNA said.

North Korea has maintained a strict coronavirus lockdown since the start of the pandemic, but with a massive outbreak of Omicron in the neighboring country, experts say Covid will inevitably creep in.

– Crisis Mode –

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Kim’s public criticism showed that the situation on the ground was dire.

“He pointed to the overall inadequacy of the isolation system,” he said.

Kim Jong Un has previously said the country will “actively learn” China’s pandemic management strategy, according to KCNA.

China – the world’s only major economy still maintaining a zero-coronavirus policy – is battling multiple Omicron outbreaks, with lockdowns in some major cities, including financial hub Shanghai, sparking growing public frustration feel.

North Korea has previously rejected Covid vaccines from China and the World Health Organization’s Covid program, but both Beijing and Seoul have issued new aid offers since the outbreak.

North Korea may need international assistance to weather the massive surge in Omicron, Yang said.

“If China’s aid is not enough to defeat the epidemic, North Korea will eventually ask South Korea, the United States or international organizations,” he said.

U.S. President Joe Biden will visit Seoul later this week to discuss Pyongyang’s weapons program and the Covid-19 outbreak likely to be at the top of the agenda.

Despite the public health crisis, new satellite images show North Korea has resumed construction on a long-dormant nuclear reactor.

The United States and South Korea have warned that Kim Jong Un is preparing for another nuclear test – the regime’s seventh.

Analysts have warned that Kim Jong-un may speed up the testing program to distract from the catastrophic coronavirus outbreak.

Researcher Cheong said getting pandemic help from South Korea would both hurt North Korea’s “ego” and force it to delay its nuclear test program.

“If Kim Jong Un is determined to test, he will not accept South Korea’s help,” he said.

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