Updated: May 13, 2022 6:36:36 am
For over two years, North Korea claimed that it was free of Covid-19. That changed on Thursday (May 12), when state media made an unexpected announcement that the country was facing a “grave situation” due to an outbreak.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said that the “state epidemic prevention work shall be switched over to the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system” to tackle “the inroads of stealth Omicron variant into the country amid the ever-worsening worldwide public health crisis”.
State media said the country’s leader Kim Jong-un presided over a meeting where “coping with the epidemic prevention crisis state prevailing in the country” was discussed. The meeting pulled up the country’s epidemic prevention departments “for their carelessness, relaxation, irresponsibility and inefficiency as they did not sensitively cope with the public health state…”.
Why has the regime decided to acknowledge an outbreak at this stage?
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Analysts have been sceptical about North Korea’s claims over the last two years, especially because the infection severely impacted the neighbours with whom it shares land borders: Russia, South Korea, and China.
Shortly after it became clear that Covid-19 was a global pandemic, the DPRK closed its international borders and suspended travel into the country. In October 2020, it issued orders to open fire at people illegally approaching the country’s borders, which researchers had interpreted as a decree with a dual purpose: for border security and control, and to keep Covid-19 out of the country.
It is possible, however, that some outbreaks could still not be prevented.
In September 2021, the country held a military parade to mark its 73rd founding anniversary that featured soldiers and workers in hazmat suits. However, Kim Jong-un himself was not seen wearing a mask.
During a public gathering marking the start of the ‘80-Day Campaign’ in January 2021, residents of the country could be seen wearing surgical masks.
Last month, North Korea and China suspended cross-border rail trade, a critical lifeline for Pyongyang, for the second time since 2020, Beijing’s foreign ministry had announced, citing Covid-19 concerns.
And on Thursday, shortly after the KCNA announcement, Korean Central Television (KCTV), North Korea’s state broadcaster, showed pictures of Kim Jong-un and top officials wearing masks at the start and end of the meeting after which the outbreak was announced. This was possibly the first that Kim has been seen wearing a mask.
Western analysts have said it is likely the current outbreak is too big or widespread for the regime to try to hide or deny entirely.
Indeed, smuggling routes have been operational in the DPRK’s borderlands for years, and according to NK News, the American website that publishes news and analysis about North Korea, there have been a handful of illegal entries into the country since the outbreak of the pandemic, despite the strict border closures.
It is possible therefore, that exposure to Covid-19 may have occurred long before the DPRK’s official acknowledgment on Thursday.
Have North Koreans received vaccination against the coronavirus?
The DPRK’s estimated 25 million population is not vaccinated. Its testing capacity is unknown, but is estimated to be limited, and its overall healthcare structure is poor.
At the beginning of September last year, the United Nations said that North Korea had turned down offers to supply Chinese-made Sinovac vaccines, saying the shots should be sent to nations that were harder hit instead. Earlier in July, the Kim regime had rejected a consignment of some 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, citing concerns over alleged side effects, international media had reported at the time.
Also in July last year, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had said that Moscow had offered multiple times to ship the Russian-made Sputnik vaccines to North Korea.
A reason behind DPRK’s rejection of the offers for Covid-19 vaccines was probably its suspicion of any process of monitoring by the UN or any other international agency or foreign country. Instead, the regime chose to seal its borders and shut itself off even more securely than usual from the rest of the world.
What happens here onward, now that it has a self-confessed public health crisis on its hands?
Zero-Covid policies have failed everywhere, most prominently in China, where hard lockdowns and inadequate vaccination instead created a large pool of uninfected people for the Omicron variant of the virus to target. China’s Jilin province, which borders the DPRK, is one of the regions that witnessed an increase in infection numbers over the past few months.
In South Korea, despite high vaccination levels including booster shots, widespread use of face masks, and efficient public health policies, Omicron driven infection numbers spiked between February and April 2022.
Despite the crisis, Pyongyang may not necessarily be willing to accept help from foreign entities, including the UN, NK News said. It is uncertain how the coming weeks and months might pan out.
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