SEOUL — North Korea reported a significant surge in suspected coronavirus infections and deaths on Saturday as it struggled to contain its first reported outbreak, which the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said could be one of the greatest crises in the country’s history.
State media said an additional 174,400 people had symptoms, like fever, that could be due to Covid-19, nearly a tenfold jump from the 18,000 such cases reported on Friday. It also said 21 more people had died in connection with the outbreak, bringing the country’s total to 27. But the reports did not say how many of the new infections or deaths had been definitively linked to Covid-19 through testing.
“North Korea is reporting only ‘people with fever’ because it does not have enough test kits,” said Cheong Seong-chang, the director of the Center for North Korean Studies of the Sejong Institute in South Korea. “Some of the people with fever may not be actual patients, but there could be far more cases among asymptomatic people without any fever. So the actual number of infected people will likely be more than the North has announced.”
Most of the newly reported deaths were caused by overdoses of medication and other negligence caused by a lack of medical expertise, North Korean health officials were quoted as saying during a high-level meeting on Saturday. At the meeting, Mr. Kim criticized health officials in the North’s ruling Workers’ Party for “incompetence” and “irresponsibility,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.
After insisting for years that it had no Covid-19 cases and rejecting offers of humanitarian aid, North Korea admitted on Thursday that an outbreak had begun in late April. The country has reported a total of 524,400 people with Covid-like symptoms since late last month. State media said on Saturday that 243,630 had recovered fully and 280,810 were still in quarantine.
Health experts have long expressed concern about the North’s ability to battle a major coronavirus outbreak because of its threadbare public health system and low vaccination rate. International health organizations and the South Korean government have said that they were ready to ship vaccines, therapeutics and other aid should the North ask for it.
The state media reports on Saturday did not indicate whether the North would consider accepting such assistance, but they suggested a malfunctioning public health system.
Mr. Kim was quoted as telling health officials to learn from “the epidemic prevention policies of advanced countries,” particularly those of China, its neighbor and ally.
North Korea seemed to be following China’s playbook of extreme Covid restrictions when it declared a “maximum emergency” this week, ordering all cities and counties in the nation of 25 million to lock down. It also ordered them to isolate “each working unit, production unit and residential unit from each other.”
The government said it was studying how to mobilize “all the state means and forces” to get patients the medicine they need.
At the meeting on Saturday, Mr. Kim said that the virus was spreading only within individual locked-down areas and units, and that there was no “uncontrollable spread among regions.” He also said that most of the symptoms reported had been mild.
Mr. Kim said the Covid outbreak was “a great upheaval in our country,” one of the most significant in its history. But he said it could be overcome “based on the single-minded unity of the party and the people,” according to the state media reports.