WHO says North Korea’s Covid outbreak worsening despite Pyongyang’s claims

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The World Health Organization has warned that the coronavirus outbreak in North Korea is worsening despite Pyongyang’s claims that Covid-19 has been brought under control.

Michael Ryan, the WHO’s head of emergencies, urged North Korean authorities to provide more information about the outbreak to help the UN agency evaluate the public health risks for the rest of the world.

“We assume the situation is getting worse, not better,” he told a briefing on Wednesday. “It is very, very difficult to provide a proper analysis to the world when we don’t have access to the necessary data.”

The WHO has expressed concerns about Covid’s impact on the North Korean population, with many medical experts warning that the secretive state is largely unvaccinated and unprepared to deal with a surge of cases.

Ryan said the WHO had repeatedly offered technical assistance and medical supplies, including vaccines, but Pyongyang had rebuffed the entreaties and was yet to respond to similar proposals from the US and South Korea. North Korea is one of only two countries not to have initiated a Covid vaccination programme.

The WHO issued its warning after North Korean state media said last week that the country’s first Covid outbreak was slowing and some South Korean media reported that the country was lifting its lockdown in Pyongyang.

Officials at a politburo meeting on Sunday suggested that stringent anti-virus restrictions could soon be relaxed after the country admitted the massive outbreak in early May. North Korea on Thursday reported 96,610 more people showing symptoms of fever. The country with 25mn people has confirmed dozens of deaths among about 3.7mn individuals that appear to have been infected.

“It is hard to believe what North Korea says, considering the country remains unvaccinated,” said Kim Jae-chun, a professor at Sogang University in Seoul. “Its leaders seem to be in a dilemma because they can’t accept the US’s help as it has blamed Washington for its current hardship but it can’t resist international help forever because it will soon face surging public discontent without vaccination.”

North Korean state news agency KCNA said on Thursday that provincial authorities were “intensifying” their anti-virus campaigns, enforcing some lockdowns and coastal closures, and increasing medical supplies and disinfection work.

Sung Kim, the special US envoy for North Korea, is scheduled to meet his counterparts from Japan and South Korea in Seoul on Friday to discuss how to deal with Pyongyang’s recent missile launches and the country’s Covid outbreak.

The officials are expected to urge Pyongyang to resume talks over denuclearisation amid reports that North Korea is preparing for a nuclear test.

The UN Security Council last month blocked a US-proposed resolution to impose new sanctions on Pyongyang for separate missile tests, due to opposition from Russia and China.

“North Korea is fully taking advantage of the current situation as Beijing and Moscow get united against Washington,” said Kim. “It seems to have completed technical preparations for a nuclear test but I wonder what more it can get from another test after it already acquired most nuclear technologies from previous tests.”

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