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A poster displayed outside Pyongyang Department Store No.1 reads ‘Displaying beautiful communist virtues and traits’. Photo: AFP

Coronavirus: N Korea reports 88,500 more with Covid symptoms – disbelief over tiny death rate

  • N Korea says about 3.3 million people sick with fevers, but only 69 have died; ‘scientifically, their figures can’t be accepted’, professor says
  • Fatality rate of 0.002 per cent is something no other country, including world’s richest, achieved against a disease that has killed more than 6 million people

North Korea reported 88,520 more people showing fever symptoms, but no new deaths on Saturday amid the country’s first confirmed coronavirus outbreak, state media KCNA said.

According to its government, the country’s fight against Covid-19 has been impressive: About 3.3 million people have been reported sick with fevers, but only 69 have died.

If all are coronavirus cases, that’s a fatality rate of 0.002 per cent, something no other country, including the world’s richest, has achieved against a disease that has killed more than 6 million people.

The North’s claims, however, are being met with widespread doubt about two weeks after it acknowledged its first domestic Covid-19 outbreak. Experts say the impoverished North should have suffered far greater deaths than reported because there are very few vaccines, a sizeable number of undernourished people and a lack of critical care facilities and test kits to detect virus cases in large numbers.

North Korea’s secretiveness makes it unlikely outsiders can confirm the true scale of the outbreak. Some observers say North Korea is under-reporting fatalities to protect leader Kim Jong-un at all costs. There’s also a possibility it might have exaggerated the outbreak in a bid to bolster control of its 26 million people.

Kim calls North Korea’s Covid vaccines an ‘immortal potion of love’: report

“Scientifically, their figures can’t be accepted,” said Lee Yo Han, a professor at Ajou University Graduate School of Public Health in South Korea, adding that the public data “were likely all controlled (by the authorities) and embedded with their political intentions.”

The most likely course is that North Korea soon proclaims victory over Covid-19, maybe during a June political meeting, with all credit given to Kim’s leadership. The 38-year-old ruler is desperate, observers say, to win bigger public support as he deals with severe economic difficulties caused by border shutdowns, UN sanctions and his own mismanagement.

“Diverse public complaints have accumulated, so it’s time to (strengthen) internal control,” said Choi Kang, president of Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “Kim Jong-un has been taking the lead in the anti-epidemic efforts to show that his campaign is very successful and to reinforce his grip on power.”

Before North Korea on May 12 admitted to an Omicron outbreak, it had maintained a widely disputed claim that it had zero domestic infections for more than two years. When the North at last publicised the outbreak, many wondered why now.


North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attends mass funeral maskless amid Covid-19 outbreak

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attends mass funeral maskless amid Covid-19 outbreak

It was initially seen as an attempt to exploit the outbreak to get foreign humanitarian help. There were hopes that possible aid by Seoul and Washington could help resume long-stalled diplomacy on Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.

Kim has called the outbreak a “great upheaval” and launched what his propaganda teams call an all-out effort to suppress it.

He’s held several Politburo meetings to criticise officials, inspected pharmacies at dawn and mobilised troops to support medicine delivery. A health official explained pandemic responses on state television, while state newspapers have churned out articles on how to deal with fever, including gargling with saltwater and drinking honey or willow leaf tea.

Every morning, North Korea releases details about the number of new patients with fever symptoms, but not with Covid-19. Experts believe most cases should be counted as Covid-19 because while North Korean health authorities lack diagnostic kits, they still know how to distinguish the symptoms from fevers caused by the other prevalent infectious diseases.

An employee of a Pyongyang factory disinfects the dining room; only 69 people have died of Covid-19 in North Korea according to disputed official figures. Photo: AP

Medical experts question the validity of North Korea’s stated fatality rate of 0.002 per cent. Given that South Korea’s mortality rate of unvaccinated people for the Omicron variant was 0.6 per cent, North Korea must have similar or higher death rates because of its low capacity to treat patients and its people’s poor nutrition, said Shin Young-jeon, a professor of preventive medicine at Seoul’s Hanyang University.

In a study published by the Johns Hopkins University last year, North Korean ranked 193 out of 195 countries for its ability to deal with an epidemic. UN reports in recent years said about 40 per cent of its people were undernourished. North Korea’s free socialist public healthcare system has been in shambles for decades, and defectors testify that while in the North, they bought medicines at markets or somewhere else.

“North Korea wouldn’t really care about fatalities at all,” said Choi Jung Hun, a defector who worked as a doctor in North Korea in the 2000s. “Many North Koreans have already died of malaria, measles, chickenpox and typhoid. There are all kind of infectious diseases there.”