North Korea Blighted by COVID Surge As 1.4M 'Fever' Cases Reported

North Korea's COVID outbreak, described as a "great upheaval" by the nation's leader, Kim Jong Un, has grown to frightening levels as state media reported an accumulated 1.4 million "fever" cases in the past weeks.

Pyongyang publicized the surge in Omicron cases on May 12—the country's first acknowledged outbreak more than two years into the pandemic—but infections may have been spreading silently for some time because of a lack of testing capacity.

As of 6 p.m. local time on May 16, North Korea had recorded 269,510 new patients afflicted with "fever," the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Tuesday, while the death toll rose to 56.

The total number of those with fever—among the more common symptoms of COVID—had reached 1,483,060 since "late April," KCNA said, with more than 660,000 still being treated. The precise number of positive COVID tests was unclear, a possible result of the country's poor testing infrastructure.

Kim Jong Un's North Korea Battles COVID
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was critical of top government officials for failing to secure adequate supplies of medication amid the ongoing COVID outbreak, the Korean Central News Agency said May 16, 2022. In this picture Kim, center, visits a pharmacy in Pyongyang, North Korea on May 15, 2022. Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File

At a Politburo gathering of the Workers' Party, Kim mobilized the North Korean military to stabilize the distribution of medicines, the agency said. Some 11,000 medical teachers, students and officials were also taking part in contact tracing in the capital city Pyongyang, which is believed to be the epicenter of the outbreak.

The ruling party's acknowledgment that it had been monitoring fever cases since late last month makes likely the theory that the outbreak began among members of the Korean People's Army following a military parade on 25 April.

Kim was highly critical of his party's top officials during a meeting on Monday, in particular for failing to ensure pharmacies stayed open around the clock to distribute medication, KCNA said.

Cabinet and health officials tasked with supplying the public "have not rolled up their sleeves, not properly recognizing the present crisis but only talking about the spirit of devotedly serving the people," the report said.

Kim then rebuked the country's top prosecutor for "idleness and negligence," having failed to hold the aforementioned officials to account, the official news service said. The leader reportedly later visited some of Pyongyang's pharmacies in person.

North Korea was offered vaccines by China and through the WHO-backed sharing initiative COVAX, but Kim turned down the opportunity to vaccinate the country's 25 million people last year.

It means North Korea is now one of only two nations in the world—the other being Eritrea—that hasn't begun a vaccination campaign, the WHO confirmed in a press release on Monday. Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh, the UN agency's regional director for Southeast Asia, said the global health body was ready to help.

"With the country yet to initiate COVID-19 vaccination, there is risk that the virus may spread rapidly among the masses unless curtailed with immediate and appropriate measures," said Khetrapal Singh.

Beijing, which pledged its "full support" to Pyongyang last week, said on Tuesday it remained ready to assist. The Chinese Foreign Ministry's response suggested it was awaiting some form of request from its neighbor.

Kwon Young-se, the new head of South Korea's Unification Ministry, offered Seoul's assistance to the North in a phone message on Monday, including the provision of face masks, testing kits and vaccines. The South said it hadn't received a response.

Pyongyang, which is already overseeing a potentially malnourished population stricken by a food crisis, has ordered a full lockdown of affected areas. Its borders have been shut since January 2020.

Observers fear the outbreak could develop into a major humanitarian crisis if cases overwhelm North Korea's poor healthcare system.

Liz Throssell, spokesperson for the UN Human Rights Office, told a media briefing on Tuesday that the virus' spread through an unvaccinated population "may have a devastating impact on the human rights situation in the country."

Kim Jong Un's North Korea Battles COVID
North Korea is one of only two nations in the world that hasn't begun a vaccination campaign, the WHO has said. In this picture, employees of the Medicament Management Office of Daesong district in Pyongyang provide medicine to residents on May 16, 2022 as the state increases measures aimed at stopping the spread of COVID in the North Korean capital. Jon Chol Jin/AP Photo