North Korea announces first death from Covid-19

·3 min read
People sit near a screen showing a news broadcast at a train station in Seoul on May 12, 2022, of North Koreas leader Kim Jong Un appearing in a face mask on television for the first time to order nationwide lockdowns after the North confirmed its first-ever Covid-19 cases.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appeared in a face mask on television for the first time on Thursday to order nationwide lockdowns

North Korea has confirmed its first death from Covid-19, with state media adding that tens of thousands more are experiencing fever symptoms.

Six people died after suffering a fever with one testing positive for Omicron, state media reported on Friday.

It said 187,000 people with a fever were being "isolated and treated".

While experts believe the virus has been present in the country for some time, the authorities only announced the first cases on Thursday.

They said there had been an outbreak of the Omicron variant in the capital, Pyongyang, and announced lockdown measures. They did not give precise case numbers.

But in an update on Friday, the official KCNA news agency reported that the outbreak extended beyond the capital. "A fever whose cause couldn't be identified spread explosively nationwide from late April," it said.

Around 350,000 people had shown signs of that fever, it added, without specifying how many had tested positive for Covid.

An image released by state media shows officials - all wearing face masks - meeting Kim Jong-un to discuss Covid-19
An image released by state media showed officials - all wearing face masks - meeting Kim Jong-un to discuss Covid-19

Analysts suggest the latest figures from state media, including the acknowledgement that the unspecified fever had spread nationwide, may indicate the country is experiencing an outbreak unlike any it has seen so far.

Its population of 25 million is vulnerable due to the lack of a vaccination programme and poor healthcare, experts say.

North Korea rejected offers from the international community to supply millions of AstraZeneca and Chinese-made jabs last year. Instead, it claimed it had controlled Covid by sealing its borders early in January 2020.

The country shares land borders with South Korea and China, which have both battled outbreaks. China is now struggling to contain an Omicron wave with lockdowns in its biggest cities.

On Friday, KCNA reported that the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had visited a healthcare centre and "learned about the nationwide spread of Covid-19".

It described the situation as an "immediate public health crisis".

Analysis box by Jean Mackenzie, Seoul correspondent
Analysis box by Jean Mackenzie, Seoul correspondent

These numbers give us the first indication that the virus has spread rapidly around the country, far beyond the capital Pyongyang.

This puts the entire population of 25 million at risk. No-one is vaccinated, many are malnourished, and the health care system is poor.

But the virus itself may not present the biggest danger. The lockdown could have devastating consequences for people.

Food and medicine are already in short supply, thanks to efforts by authorities to keep the virus out - they've sealed the country's borders for more than two years, cutting off virtually all trade.

We don't know yet how aggressive these lockdowns will be, and whether people will be confined to their homes.

Kim Jong-un wants some work to continue. But it is very possible that the markets, where many earn a living, will be closed. It will also be more difficult for people to move around the country. This in turn will make it even harder for them to get hold of the food and supplies they need to survive.

By publishing these figures today, some say North Korea is showing it might finally be willing to accept outside help.

At a meeting outlining new Covid rules on Thursday, Mr Kim was seen wearing a face mask on television for what was believed to be the first time.

He ordered "maximum emergency" virus controls, which appeared to include orders for local lockdowns and gathering restrictions in workplaces.

There are fears a major outbreak could make it even more difficult for essential supplies to enter the country, worsening food shortages and a faltering economy.

South Korea has said it offered humanitarian aid after Thursday's announcement, but Pyongyang is yet to respond.

Despite North Korea's earlier claims that it had "shining success" in keeping out Covid, there have been signs throughout the pandemic of its possible presence in the country, including unconfirmed reports of cases and workers wearing hazmat suits.