North Korea reports first covid deaths amid ‘explosive’ outbreak

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SEOUL – North Korea has announced an “explosive” coronavirus outbreak, with six dead and 350,000 infected nationwide since April, a day after the country admitted that Covid-19 had finally reached it.

State media called the outbreak a “public health crisis,” though the full extent remains unclear. North Korea is also one of two countries not to have administered vaccines against the coronavirus, raising concerns among experts that it could become an epicenter for new variants.

North Korea’s Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Friday nearly 190,000 people are in quarantine, while 162,000 of the more than 350,000 infected have recovered. The agency said one of the six people who died had tested positive for the BA.2 omicron subvariant of the coronavirus.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who ordered a nationwide lockdown after announcing the country’s first official coronavirus infection Thursday, was quoted by KCNA as admitting the spreading infections were a “serious sign of flaws in our anti-epidemic system.” ”. The authoritarian leader appeared in public for the first time on Thursday wearing a face mask.

For more than two years, as the pandemic raged around the world, North Korea had maintained it was free of infection. But experts say the virus likely spread in the country well before Pyongyang’s official announcement this week.

According to a report by a panel of experts convened by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Most North Koreans are chronically malnourished and unvaccinated, the country is running out of drugs and the health infrastructure is unable to cope with this pandemic,” said Lina Yoon, senior Korean researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Pyongyang has also repeatedly rejected Seoul’s offers for vaccines and other medical aid. Kwon Young-se, South Korea’s nominee minister for unification, said on Thursday the ministry is ready to “actively” pursue aid to North Korea as the ommicron variant could exacerbate the humanitarian crisis there.

Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korean analyst at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said the omicron variant will cause “chaos” in North Korea for up to a year. “For now, however, North Korea is not expected to accept corona aid from outside, especially the western world,” he said.

Despite the virus outbreak, North Korea is unlikely to give up on plans to test missiles and nuclear weapons, which could be used to boost public morale during a health crisis, Cheong said.

According to the South Korean military, North Korea fired three short-range missiles off the east coast on Thursday, hours after it announced the first outbreak of the corona virus.

Seoul’s National Security Office rejected the tests in a statement on Thursday, saying North Korea “turned a blind eye to the lives and safety of its people and continued to provoke ballistic missiles” despite the virus’s rapid spread .

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