North Korea reports more fevers as Kim says virus is advancing

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said Saturday it found nearly 220,000 more people with feverish symptoms, even as leader Kim Jong Un claimed to have made progress in slowing a largely undiagnosed spread of COVID. -19 among its unvaccinated population and hinted that it would ease virus restrictions. take care of a declining economy.

The outbreak has raised concerns about serious tragedies in the poor and isolated country with one of the world’s worst health care systems and a high tolerance for civilian suffering. Experts say North Korea is almost certainly downplaying the true scale of the viral spread, including a strangely small death toll, to soften the political blow to Kim as he goes through the most difficult time of his decade in rule.

About 219,030 North Koreans with a fever were identified in the 24 hours to 6 p.m. Friday, the fifth consecutive daily increase of about 200,000, according to the North’s Korean Central News Agency, which attributed the information to the government’s anti-virus headquarters. .

North Korea said more than 2.4 million people have fallen ill and 66 people have died since an unidentified fever began to spread rapidly in late April, though the country has only been able to identify a handful of those cases as COVID. -19 due to lack of test supplies. After upholding a dubious claim for two and a half years that it had perfectly blocked the virus from entering its territory, the North admitted omicron infections last week.

Amid a shortage of public health tools, the North has mobilized more than a million health workers to find people with fevers and isolate them in quarantine facilities. Kim also imposed strict restrictions on travel between cities and towns and mobilized thousands of troops to help transport drugs to pharmacies in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, which has been at the center of the outbreak.

During a meeting of the ruling party’s Politburo on Saturday, Kim insisted the country was beginning to get the outbreak under control and called for tighter surveillance to maintain the “affirmative trend” in the anti-virus campaign, KCNA said. But Kim also appeared to hint at relaxing his response to the pandemic to ease his economic woes, instructing officials to actively modify the country’s preventive measures based on the changing virus situation and come up with various plans to revitalize the national economy.

KCNA said Politburo members discussed ways to “more effectively design and execute” the government’s anti-virus policy in accordance with how the spread of the virus was being “stably controlled and decreased”, but the report did not specified what was discussed.

While imposing supposedly “maximum” preventive measures, Kim has also stressed that his economic goals have yet to be met, with state media describing large groups of workers continuing to gather at farms, mining facilities, power plants and construction sites.

Experts say Kim cannot afford to cripple the country that would trigger a further shock to a fragile economy strained by decades of mismanagement, crippling US-driven sanctions over its nuclear weapons ambitions and pandemic border closures. State media have featured an urgent push for agricultural drives aimed at protecting crops amid an ongoing drought, a worrying development in a country long food insecure, and to complete large-scale housing and other projects. of construction that Kim considers crucial to his rule.

North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper said farm workers in South Hwanghae province were striving for “miraculous results” in planting rice to pay Kim, describing how their leader has donated his personal medical supplies to help. with anti-virus efforts, the newspaper said. it allowed workers to “rise like a phoenix.”

The virus has not stopped Kim from celebrating and attending public events important to his leadership. State media showed him crying during Saturday’s state funeral for top North Korean military officer Hyon Chol Hae, who is believed to have been involved in grooming Kim as a future leader under his father Kim Jong Il’s rule.

North Korea’s optimistic portrayal of its response to the pandemic contrasts sharply with outside concerns about the dire consequences, including deaths that may number in the tens of thousands. Concerns have grown as the country appears to be trying to handle the crisis in isolation while ignoring aid from South Korea and the United States. The South Korean government said it could not confirm reports that North Korea had flown planes to bring emergency supplies from ally China this week.

In recent years, the North has rejected millions of doses of vaccines offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly due to the international monitoring requirements attached to those vaccines. The WHO and UNICEF have said North Korea has so far not responded to their requests for data on the virus or proposals for help, and some experts say the North may be willing to accept a certain level of deaths to gain immunity through of the infection.

It is possible that at least some of North Korea’s fever cases stem from illnesses unrelated to COVID-19, such as waterborne illnesses, which South Korean intelligence officials say have become a problem. growing for the North in recent years amid shortages of medical supplies.

But experts say the explosive rate of spread and North Korea’s lack of a testing regimen to detect large numbers of carriers of the virus in the early stages of infection suggest the country’s COVID-19 crisis is likely to be worse than the fever figures represent. They say the country’s deaths would be significantly higher than the official count and deaths will rise further in the coming weeks considering the intervals between infections and deaths.

North Korea’s admission of a COVID-19 outbreak came amid a spate of weapons tests, including the country’s first demonstration of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017 in March, as Kim pushes through a brinkmanship aimed at pressuring to the United States to accept the North’s idea. as a nuclear power and negotiating economic and security concessions from a position of strength.

Economic challenges and the COVID-19 crisis are unlikely to slow down his lobbying campaign. U.S. and South Korean officials have said there is a possibility the North could conduct another ballistic missile test or nuclear explosives test during or around President Joe Biden’s visits to South Korea and Japan this week.

Nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been stalled for more than three years over disagreements over how to relax crippling US-led sanctions in exchange for disarmament steps by the North.

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