SEOUL — The coronavirus has been spreading across North Korea “explosively” since late last month, killing six people and leaving 187,800 people in quarantine, the country’s state media reported on Friday.
Health officials made the rare admission of an emerging public health crisis after the country reported its first outbreak of the virus — after long insisting it had no infections and refusing outside humanitarian aid to fight any spread. The announcement of fatalities came as the country’s 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.
Mr. Kim criticized his heath officials, saying that the simultaneous spread of fever, with the capital as a center of the outbreak, “shows that there is a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system,” the North Korean news agency said.
Some analysts warned that North Korea could be headed into a major humanitarian crisis unless the international community persuades it to open up for outside aid to fight the virus.
“We are in the early stage of the spread of vast human misery,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea expert at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “The nature and scale of the illnesses, deaths, hunger and starvation can only be established much later.”
North Korea said it had learned of its first outbreak after health officials on Sunday tested people in Pyongyang, the capital, who showed symptoms such as a fever. They were 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, and told them to isolate “each working unit, production unit and residential unit from each other.”
North Korea said 350,000 people had been found to have a fever since late April, including 18,000 on Thursday. It added that 162,200 people had completely recovered. The reports on the outbreak so far have been vague, blaming “a fever whose cause couldn’t be identified.” They did not clarify, for example, how many people with the fever had tested positive for the virus. But they said that one of the six who died had tested positive for the BA.2 subvariant.
“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 the outside.”
So far, North Korea has not accepted any Covid-19 vaccine donations from world health organizations. South Korean officials hope that humanitarian shipments, including 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. In addition, the outbreak could increase the strain on the economy, which already has been hit by years of U.N. sanctions and North Korea’s decision two years ago to close its border with China, its only major trading partner.
“North Koreans are chronically malnourished and unvaccinated, there are barely any medicines left in the country, and the health infrastructure is incapable to deal with this pandemic,” said Lina Yoon, senior Korea researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The international community should offer medicine for Covid-19 related symptoms, Covid-19 treating anti-viral medicines, and provide vaccines and all necessary infrastructure for vaccine preservation, including fridges, generators and gasoline.”
Hours after admitting to the outbreak on Thursday, North Korea launched three ballistic missiles from near Pyongyang toward the sea off its east coast. It was the North’s 16th missile test this year.
In South Korea, the government of the newly inaugurated president, Yoon Suk-yeol, condemned the test as a “grave threat” and “provocation,” and accused the North of “duplicity” for testing weapons while its people were threatened by the coronavirus. But it said it was willing to ship vaccines, therapeutics and other humanitarian aid to the North.
In Washington, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said that “the United States does not currently have plans to share vaccines” with North Korea. She said the country was “continuing to exploit its own citizens” through its policy of not accepting humanitarian aid during the pandemic.
“Instead, they divert resources to build their unlawful nuclear and ballistic missiles programs,” Ms. Psaki said, repeating Washington’s assessment that North Korea could be ready to conduct a nuclear test as early as this month. President Biden is scheduled to meet with Mr. Yoon in Seoul on May 21.