If all of the cases are coronavirus, the fatality rate is 0.002 percent, which no other country, including the richest, has achieved against a disease that has killed more than 6 million people.
However, the North’s claims are being met with widespread skepticism, just two weeks after it acknowledged its first domestic COVID-19 outbreak. According to experts, the impoverished North should have seen far more deaths than reported due to a lack of vaccines, a large number of malnourished people, and a lack of critical care facilities and test kits to detect virus cases in large numbers.
Because of North Korea’s secrecy, outsiders are unlikely to confirm the true scope of the outbreak. According to some observers, North Korea underreports fatalities in order to protect leader Kim Jong Un at all costs. It’s also possible that it exaggerated the outbreak in order to maintain control over its 26 million people.
“Scientifically, their figures cannot be accepted,” said Lee Yo Han, a professor at South Korea’s Ajou University Graduate School of Public Health, adding that the public data “were most likely all controlled (by the authorities) and embedded with their political intentions.”
The most likely scenario is that North Korea declares victory over COVID-19 soon, perhaps during a June political meeting, with full credit going to Kim’s leadership. According to observers, the 38-year-old ruler is desperate for more public support as he deals with severe economic difficulties caused by border closures, UN sanctions, and his own mismanagement.
“A variety of public complaints have accumulated, so it’s time to (strengthen) internal control,” said Choi Kang, president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “Kim Jong Un has taken the lead in anti-epidemic efforts to demonstrate the success of his campaign and to strengthen his grip on power.”
Before admitting to an omicron outbreak on May 12, North Korea had maintained a widely disputed claim that it had zero domestic infections for more than two years. Many people were perplexed when the North finally announced the outbreak.
It was initially perceived as an attempt to use the outbreak to obtain foreign humanitarian aid. There was hope that possible assistance from Seoul and Washington could help restart long-stalled diplomacy on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
Kim has called the outbreak a “great upheaval,” and his propaganda teams have launched an all-out effort to suppress it.
He’s held several Politburo meetings to criticize officials, inspected pharmacies early in the morning, and mobilized troops to help with medicine delivery. On state television, a health official explained pandemic responses, and state newspapers published articles on how to treat fever, such as gargling with saltwater and drinking honey or willow leaf tea.
“Honey is a rare commodity among ordinary North Koreans.” “They probably felt bad when their government made them drink honey tea,” said Seo Jae-pyong, a North Korean defector turned activist in Seoul. “I have an older brother who is still in North Korea, and I am very concerned about him.”
North Korea releases information about the number of new patients with fever symptoms every morning, but not about COVID-19. Experts believe that the majority of cases should be classified as COVID-19 because, despite a lack of diagnostic tools, North Korean health officials can distinguish the symptoms from fevers caused by other common infectious diseases.
North Korea’s daily fever count peaked at nearly 400,000 early last week before plummeting to around 100,000 in recent days. It added one more death on Friday after reporting no fatalities for three days in a row.
“Our country set a world record for having no single (COVID-19) infection for the longest period of time… and we’ve now achieved the feat of reversing the tide of the abrupt outbreak in a short period,” the main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said Thursday. “This clearly demonstrates the scientific nature of our country’s emergency anti-epidemic measures.”
Medical experts call North Korea’s stated fatality rate of 0.002 percent into question. Given that South Korea’s unvaccinated mortality rate for the omicron variant was 0.6 percent, North Korea must have similar or higher death rates due to its low capacity to treat patients and its people’s poor nutrition, according to Shin Young-jeon, a preventive medicine professor at Seoul’s Hanyang University.
According to a study published last year by Johns Hopkins University, North Korea ranked 193 out of 195 countries in terms of its ability to deal with an epidemic. According to recent United Nations reports, approximately 40% of its people are malnourished. North Korea’s free socialist public health care system has been in disarray for decades, and defectors testify that they purchased medicines at markets or elsewhere while in the North.
“North Korea wouldn’t care at all,” said Choi Jung Hun, a defector who worked as a doctor in North Korea in the 2000s. “Malaria, measles, chickenpox, and typhoid have already claimed many North Korean lives.” There are infectious diseases of every kind there.”
Choi, who is now a researcher at a Korea University-affiliated institute in South Korea, believes North Korea admitted to the omicron outbreak because it considers it less lethal and more manageable. He suspected North Korea staged a scenario to increase and then decrease fever cases in order to boost Kim’s leadership.
According to Lee, the Ajou professor, North Korea may have exaggerated earlier fever cases to provide “a powerful shock” to the public in order to rally support for the government, but avoided disclosing too many deaths in order to avoid public unrest.
If people remain unvaccinated and die at the same rate as in South Korea, the outbreak could kill more than 100,000 people, according to Shin, the Hanyang professor.
According to Moon Jin Soo, director of the Institute for Health and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, the North Korean outbreak will likely last several months. He believes it is more important to ship anti-viral pills and other essential medications to North Korea than vaccines, which would take at least a couple of months to implement.
“North Korea could spend a few more months massaging the statistics, but they could also declare victory this weekend,” said Ahn Kyung-su, the head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website focusing on North Korean health issues. “North Korea always operates beyond your wildest dreams.” It’s difficult to predict what they’ll do, but they do have a strategy.”
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