SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said on Saturday it found nearly 220,000 more people with feverish symptoms even as leader Kim Jong Un claimed progress in slowing a largely undiagnosed spread of COVID-19 out of an unvaccinated population of 26 million.
About 219,030 North Koreans with fever were identified in the 24 hours to 6 p.m. Friday, the fifth consecutive daily increase of about 200,000, according to North Korea’s Central News Agency, which attributed the information at the headquarters of the government antivirus.
North Korea said more than 2.4 million people have fallen ill and 66 people have died since an unidentified fever began spreading rapidly in late April, although the country could only identify a handful of those cases as COVID-19 due to a lack of testing supplies. After maintaining a dubious claim for 2½ years that it had successfully blocked the virus from entering its territory, the North admitted infections with omicron last week.
At a meeting of the ruling party’s Politburo on Saturday, Kim insisted the country was beginning to bring the outbreak under control and called for heightened vigilance to maintain the “positive trend” in the anti-virus campaign, said KCNA said. But Kim also appeared to hint at easing his pandemic response to ease his economic woes, asking officials to actively modify the country’s preventative measures as the virus situation evolves and come up with various plans to revitalize. the national economy.
KCNA said Politburo members debated ways to “design and execute more effectively” the government’s anti-virus policy in line with how the spread of the virus was “stably controlled and reduced,” but the report does not specify what was discussed.
Even imposing what state media described as “maximum” preventive measures, Kim stressed that his economic goals must still be met, and state media described large groups of workers continuing to rally in farms, mining facilities, power plants and construction sites.
Experts say Kim cannot afford to bring the country to a standstill, which would trigger an additional shock to a fragile economy, strained by decades of mismanagement, crippling US-led sanctions against his ambitions on nuclear weapons and the closing of borders in the event of a pandemic. State media described urgent pressure for agricultural campaigns to protect crops amid ongoing drought, a worrying development in a country that has long suffered from food insecurity, and to complete construction projects. housing and other large-scale construction projects that Kim considers crucial to his rule.
The virus hasn’t stopped Kim from hosting and attending public events important to his leadership. State media showed him crying at Saturday’s state funeral for senior North Korean military official Hyon Chol Hae, who is believed to have been involved in grooming Kim as a future leader under the reign. of his father, Kim Jong Il.
North Korea’s optimistic portrayal of its response to the pandemic contrasts sharply with outside concerns about dire consequences, including deaths of up to tens of thousands of people. Concerns have grown as the country seemingly tries to manage the crisis in isolation while ignoring help from South Korea and the United States. The South Korean government said it could not confirm reports that North Korea flew planes to bring back emergency supplies from allied China this week.
In recent years, the North has shunned millions of vaccine doses donated by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly due to international monitoring requirements attached to such shots. The WHO and UNICEF have said North Korea has so far failed to respond to their requests for virus data or offers of help, and some experts say the North may be willing to accept a certain level of death to obtain immunity by infection.
It’s possible that at least some of North Korea’s fever cases are due to illnesses unrelated to COVID-19 such as waterborne illnesses, which South Korean intelligence officials say are become a growing problem for the North in recent years due to the shortage of medical supplies.
But experts say the explosive rate of spread and the lack of a testing regime in North Korea to detect large numbers of virus carriers in the early stages of infection suggest the country’s COVID-19 crisis is over. probably worse than what his fever numbers represent. They say that the true deaths from the virus in the country would be significantly higher than the official figures and that deaths will increase further in the coming weeks given the intervals between infections and deaths.
North Korea’s admission of a COVID-19 outbreak came amid a provocative series of weapons tests, including the country’s first demonstration of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017 in March, as Kim pushes a scheme to pressure the United States into accepting the idea of the North as a nuclear power and negotiating economic and security concessions from a position of strength.
Challenges posed by a declining economy and the COVID-19 outbreak are unlikely to slow his lobbying campaign. US and South Korean officials have said it is possible the North could conduct another ballistic missile test or nuclear explosive test during or around President Joe Biden’s visits to South Korea and Japan this week.
Nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled for more than three years over disagreements over how to ease crippling US-led sanctions in return for disarmament moves by the North.