May 17, 2022
SEOUL – While the entire world was fighting tooth and nail to contain the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years, North Korea remained tightly closed and insisted it is coronavirus-free in a way that spawned much speculation.
Last Thursday, Pyongyang finally broke its silence and reported through state media that the country had its first COVID cases. Since then, a flurry of bad news has been coming out, turning hitherto educated guesses into a stark reality.
The communist regime said Sunday it added nearly 400,000 new confirmed cases, or what it calls “people with symptoms of fever” — an exponential increase from Thursday when the daily cases were numbered at 18,000. The total caseload of fever patients shot up to over 1.21 million. The total death toll also climbed to 50, including eight reported Sunday.
The real figures would likely be much higher than the official numbers reported by Pyongyang’s state media, given that North Korea does not have enough medical equipment for testing and tracking infected patients. Its fragile public health infrastructure is also ill-prepared to handle a surge of mass infections.
In a sign of belated desperation and the depth of troubles, photos are showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un putting on a mask when he was briefed in an emergency meeting or on a visit to a pharmacy in Pyongyang.
During a politburo meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers‘ Party of Korea, Kim sharply criticized his officials for failing to deliver medication to its people in time regarding the COVID-19 outbreak and ordered the military’s medical personnel to help out the supply of medicine in Pyongyang, the capital.
Kim blamed state agencies and public health sectors for the rapidly worsening virus situation, even though he is apparently responsible for much of the virus woes by pursuing an isolationist policy at the cost of its people’s health.
South Korean media reported that North Korea is going through a surge of infections nationwide partly because of the large-scale military parade held on April 25 and the resumption of limited import of necessities from China early this year.
The outlook is grim. Many North Koreans are suffering from malnutrition. The lack of medical supplies, including virus vaccines and treatment drugs, cannot be resolved in a short period of time, while the virus, especially the highly transmissible omicron variant, spreads at a swift pace in a way that makes it virtually impossible to treat patients in critical conditions in time.
Worse, there seems to be no actively operating vaccination program in the North, nor is there reliable data about how many North Koreans have been vaccinated so far. The typically opaque way North Korea handles its affairs does not offer any ground for optimism.
What matters now is whether North Korea is willing to tackle the virus crisis by accepting much-needed helping hands from its neighbors. On Sunday, North Korea reportedly asked China to help its anti-virus battle by offering medical supplies and equipment. This is clearly a positive turn. Previously, North the Korea declined offers of vaccines from China, Russia and COVAX, an international vaccine-sharing scheme.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said Monday he will spare no effort to help North Korea cope with the pandemic, offering to send vaccines and other medical supplies. The Unification Ministry also attempted to send a formal message via the liaison office to North Korea in hopes of holding working-level consultations, but there was no response from the North as of Monday afternoon.
Even if — a big if — Kim Jong-un agrees to get assistance from the South, delivery is a complex undertaking fraught with problems, such as a poor cold-chain distribution system in North Korea and UN-imposed sanctions that prevent shipment of some necessary equipment.
President Yoon should discuss the North Korea issue, including specific ways to resolve procedural difficulties, with US President Joe Biden at the summit slated for May 21. For his part, North Korean leader Kim should accept the offer from Yoon and reopen the dialogue channel — not only for improving stalled inter-Korean relations, but also to save the lives of virus-stricken North Koreans.