North Korea acknowledged on Sunday that it was facing a contagious outbreak of COVID-19, after denying for more than a year that the virus had reached its shores.
In the past 24 hours, another 296,000 people developed a COVID-like fever and 15 people died, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a brief statement.
North Korea has now recorded about 820,000 COVID-19 cases and at least 42 deaths in recent weeks alone since acknowledging that the virus has escaped strict state control.
North Korea’s Ministry of Public Health also announced on Saturday that it would shift from “national epidemic prevention efforts to a maximum emergency epidemic prevention system,” dispatching officials to affected areas and opening more pharmacies across the country “to eliminate early sources of transmission,” KNCA reported.
Experts have long been deeply skeptical of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s regime’s claim that the isolated communist state is completely shut out of COVID-19. The new officially confirmed cases and deaths are seen as a sign that either the outbreak has become too severe to cover up, or that the Kim regime wants to use it to win diplomatic or aid concessions.
The spread of the new disease has brought “tremendous turmoil” to the country, Mr King said in a statement late Saturday.
In a meeting with top aides, he also praised China’s controversial “coronavirus zero” strategy, which aims to contain all coronavirus outbreaks and lower the death toll through draconian population controls and quarantines.
North Korea may be particularly vulnerable to the epidemic, experts say, because its health system is under strain and few of the 26 million people believed to live there have been vaccinated.