North Korea's low Covid-19 death count questioned

Country has reported more than 2 million cases of 'fever' since admitting to Omicron outbreak, but only a few dozen deaths

Ryu Yong-chol, an official at North Korea's state emergency epidemic prevention headquarters, speaks during a daily coronavirus programme on state-run television KRT on Friday. Reuters
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Experts are questioning North Korea's reported death toll during a Covid-19 outbreak, with the isolated country saying on Friday that nearly 10 per cent of its 26 million people had fallen ill and 65 people had died.

After admitting to the Omicron outbreak last week after more than two years of claiming to be coronavirus-free, North Korea says an unidentified fever had been spreading across the country since late last month. Its anti-epidemic centre has since released tallies each morning of people reporting symptoms but not of confirmed Covid-19 cases.

Some observers say North Korea was probably forced to acknowledge the Covid-19 outbreak because it could not hide the highly contagious viral spread among its people and suffer potential public discontent with leader Kim Jong-un. They believe North Korean authorities are underreporting mortalities to try to show that its pandemic response is effective, while the country lacks testing kits to confirm a large number of infections.

Kwak Gil-sup, head of One Korea Centre, a website specialising in North Korea affairs, said: “It’s true that there has been a hole in its two-and-a-half years of pandemic fighting. But there is a saying that North Korea is ’a theatre state’ and I think they are massaging Covid-19 statistics.”

Mr Kwak said North Korea might be using the outbreak as a propaganda tool to show that it is overcoming the pandemic with Mr Kim’s leadership. But the country has “a Plan B” and “a Plan C” to seek Chinese and other foreign aid if the pandemic gets out of hand, he said.

On Friday, North Korea’s state emergency epidemic prevention headquarters said 263,370 more people had feverish symptoms and two more people had died, bringing the total "fever" cases to 2.24 million and deaths to 65. They said 754,810 people remain quarantined, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.

The outbreak likely originated from a military parade in Pyongyang on April 25 that Mr Kim organised to show off his new missiles and loyal troops. The parade and other related festivities, which marked North Korea’s army foundation anniversary, drew tens of thousands of people and soldiers from Pyongyang and other parts of the country, who returned home after the events.

South Korean security agents told politicians on Thursday that “a considerable number” of the fever cases reported by North Korea include people sick with waterborne diseases such as measles, typhoid and whooping cough.

The National Intelligence Service believes those diseases had been spreading across North Korea even before Covid-19 broke out, said Ha Tae-keung, a politician who attended a private NIS briefing. Mr Ha cited the NIS as saying the waterborne diseases were spreading due to shortages of medicines and medical supplies.

The NIS "said it doesn’t know exactly what percentage of the fever cases are coronavirus patients", Mr Ha said.

"It said North Korea lacks coronavirus diagnostic kits but appears to have sufficient thermometers.”

The NIS has a patchy record in confirming developments in North Korea. Some civilian medical experts had earlier said they believed most of the fever cases announced by the North were Covid-19.

On Monday, when the North’s fever cases had already surpassed 1.2 million, Ryu Yong-chol, an official at Pyongyang’s anti-virus headquarters, said on state TV that the government had detected 168 Covid-19 cases as of last Saturday. There have been no updates on the North’s virus cases since.

Ahn Kyung-su, head of a website focusing on health issues in North Korea, said Pyongyang had likely determined its Omicron outbreak would not cause a catastrophic number of deaths but disclosed it to prevent potential public unrest. He said North Korea’s increased anti-virus measures were partly meant to solidify its control of a public tired of previous restrictions and other difficulties.

“North Korea’s pandemic response isn’t completely staged as people are dying," Mr Ahn said. "But it’s obvious that its leadership’s political intentions have been added there. One day, they’ll proclaim their victory over Covid-19 in a colourful manner.”

Doubts remain over the standard of North Korea’s public medical system and experts say the country could suffer mass pandemic deaths if it does not receive outside aid shipments. They say the country’s elevated restrictions on movement and quarantine rules may also lead to widespread hunger.

The NIS said North Korea intends to overcome the pandemic with assistance from its main ally, China, said Mr Ha and Kim Byung-kee, another politician who was briefed by the intelligence service. During an anti-virus meeting on Saturday, Mr Kim said his country faced “a great upheaval” and that officials must study how China and other nations have handled the pandemic.

Some media outlets said North Korea sent planes to China to bring back emergency supplies this week but the South Korean government said it could not confirm such reports. South Korea said it and the United States have offered to ship vaccines, medicines and other medical supplies to North Korea, but the North has not responded.

With reporting from AFP

Updated: May 20, 2022, 7:41 AM