SEOUL – The coronavirus has been spreading across North Korea “at an explosive rate” since late last month, killing six people and leaving 187,800 people in quarantine, the country’s state media reported on Friday.
The country’s health officials made the rare admission of an emerging public health crisis while its leader, Kim Jong-un, was visiting the national disease-control headquarters on Thursday, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said.
In a sign of growing urgency, the state-run Central Television for the first time showed Mr. Kim wearing a mask during a Workers’ Party meeting.
The fact that the virus was spreading across the country meant that North Korea had “loopholes in its epidemiological system,” Mr. Kim was quoted as saying.
North Korea said it had learned of its first outbreak after health officials on Sunday tested people in an unidentified organization in Pyongyang, the capital, who showed symptoms such as fever. They were confirmed to be infected with the BA.2 subvariant of the virus, it said.
The country declared a “maximum emergency” and ordered all cities and counties in the nation of 25 million to lock down to fight the spread.
North Korea’s admission of an outbreak was an abrupt change for the secretive country, which had long insisted it had no cases of the virus that first emerged in neighboring China more than two years ago. Outside experts had been skeptical, however, noting a lack of extensive Covid testing and the North’s threadbare public health system.
Mr. Kim said 350,000 people had been found to have a fever since late April, including 18,000 on Thursday. He added that 162,200 people had been successfully treated. The reports on the outbreak have so far been vague, without clarifying, for example, how many of the 350,000 people found with fever have tested positive for the virus.
“Like any other data from North Korea, the figures are up to debate, and we cannot fully trust them,” said Ahn Kyung-su, who operates the Seoul-based DPRKHealth.org, a website and network of public health experts who study North Korea. “But what’s clear is that North Korea has the Covid phenomenon, and by publicizing those figures, North Korea appears to be sending out signals that it is finally ready to accept Covid-related aid from outside.”
So far, North Korea has not accepted any pandemic-related humanitarian aid, including vaccine donations from world health organizations. South Korean officials hope that humanitarian shipments, including Covid-19 vaccines, could help restart diplomatic dialogue between North Korea and the United States and allies.
The danger posed by the Covid outbreak is greater in North Korea than in most other nations because most of its people are unvaccinated. Outside health experts have long questioned the North’s ability to fight a large-scale outbreak, although its regime is capable of imposing severe controls on residents’ movement.
The outbreak, if not controlled quickly, could increase the strain on the country’s economy, which has already been hit hard by years of United Nations sanctions and its decision two years ago to close its border with China, its only major trading partner, to prevent the spread of the virus.
Hours after admitting to the outbreak on Thursday, North Korea launched three ballistic missiles from near Pyongyang toward the sea off its east coast, the South Korean military said. It was the North’s 16th missile test this year and an indication that it was pressing ahead with weapons tests despite the threat of the virus.