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Kim Blasts NKorea Pandemic Response    05/16 06:06


   SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un criticized 
officials over slow medicine deliveries and mobilized the military to respond 
to a surge in suspected COVID-19 infections, as his nation struggled to contain 
a fever that has reportedly killed dozens and sickened nearly a million others 
in a span of three days.

   North Korean health authorities said Monday that eight more people died and 
an additional 392,920 were newly found to have feverish symptoms. That brings 
the death toll to 50 and illnesses to more than 1.2 million, respectively. It's 
a sharp jump from six dead and 350,000 sick reported last Friday, a day after 
the North said that it found that an unspecified number of people in capital 
Pyongyang tested positive for the omicron variant.

   Kim has acknowledged that the fast-spreading fever, highly likely driven by 
COVID-19, is causing "great upheaval" in the country, and outside experts say 
the true scale of the outbreak is likely much bigger than what's described in 
the state-controlled media.

   Some suspect that North Korea has understated its fatalities or illnesses to 
shield Kim's leadership from criticism. The North likely lacks test kits and 
other tools to detect virus carriers with no or mild symptoms, which means that 
several million might already have been infected.

   "When people die, North Korean authorities will say they've died of overwork 
or from natural deaths, not because of COVID-19," said Nam Sung-wook, a 
professor at Korea University in South Korea. Nam said the North is likely 
understating the death toll to protect "the dignity of its supreme leader."

   While neighboring South Korea and China have offered to send medical 
supplies and other help, experts say it's too late to inoculate the North's 26 
million people, and that the only realistic outside help would be offering 
limited supplies of vaccines to reduce deaths among high-risk groups, including 
the elderly and people with preexisting conditions.

   It's also unclear whether and how soon Kim would accept outside offers of 
aid because he has previously rallied for unity at home to guard against the 
pandemic without resorting to foreign help.

   State media didn't specify how many of the fever cases were confirmed as 
COVID-19. Among the 50 fatalities, North Korea officially identified only one 
as a COVID-19 case so far.

   North Korea is believed to be mostly relying on isolating people with 
symptoms at shelters. Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at South Korea's Sejong 
Institute said the North's limited number of test kits are likely mainly 
reserved for the ruling elite.

   Failing to slow the virus could have dire consequences for North Korea, 
considering its broken health care system and that its people are believed to 
be unvaccinated. There's also malnourishment and chronic poverty.

   The North imposed what it described as maximum preventive measures that 
restricted travel between cities and counties, and Kim ordered public health 
officials, teachers and others to identify people with fevers so they could be 
quarantined. As of Sunday, more than 564,860 people were in quarantine, North 
Korea's state media reported.

   The explosive growth in fever cases may underscore how fast omicron could 
travel across an unvaccinated population without access to proper health tools, 
and fatalities will surely jump in coming weeks considering time lags between 
infections and deaths, said Jung Jae-hun, a professor of preventive medicine at 
South Korea's Gachon University.

   While it's clear COVID-19 is spreading at an alarming speed, there are 
questions about the accuracy of North Korea's fever tally. Jung said it's 
unlikely that North Korean health workers are able to make reliable daily 
updates, considering the lack of tests and other resources, and are possibly 
adding multiple days of cases into their single-day counts following delays.

   Cho Han Bum, an analyst at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification, 
said North Korea's fever totals seemed an "outright lie."

   "North Korea says about 390,000 more fell ill but only eight died in the 
past day, while South Korea (on Sunday) reported 25,000 new cases and 48 
deaths," he said.

   Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, 
said that the real number of COVID-19 infections in North Korea is likely at 
least three times larger than North Korea's tally of fever patients because of 
underreporting, the bad health care system and poorly computerized 
administrative networks.

   Kim during a ruling party Politburo meeting on Sunday criticized government 
and health officials over what he portrayed as a botched pandemic response, 
saying medicine supplies aren't being distributed to pharmacies in time because 
of their "irresponsible work attitude" and lack of organization.

   The Politburo had issued an emergency order to immediately release and 
quickly distribute state medicine reserves and for pharmacies to open for 
24-hour shifts, but Kim said such steps weren't being properly implemented. Kim 
ordered the medical units of his military to get involved in stabilizing the 
supply of medicine in Pyongyang, KCNA said.

   North Korea's previous claim of a perfect record in keeping out the virus 
for 2 1/2 years was widely doubted. But its extremely strict border closure, 
large-scale quarantines and propaganda that stressed anti-virus controls as a 
matter of "national existence" may have staved off a huge outbreak until now.

   South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol told the National Assembly on Monday 
that the South was willing to send vaccines, medicine, equipment and health 
personnel to the North if it's willing to accept.

   South Korean officials say Pyongyang so far has made no request for Seoul's 
help. The North also shunned millions of vaccine doses offered by the 
U.N.-backed COVAX distribution program, likely because they carried 
international monitoring requirements.

   Kim still stressed the country's economic goals should be met, which likely 
means huge groups will continue to gather at agricultural, industrial and 
construction sites.

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