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North Korea reports increase in cases


Employees spraying disinfectant on surfaces as part of preventative measures against the coronavirus at a children’s department store in Pyongyang, North Korea.

By Choe Sang-Hun


North Korea reported an increase in suspected new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, a day after its government claimed to have the pandemic under control.


North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, convened the Political Bureau of his ruling Workers’ Party on Sunday and heard “a positive evaluation of the pandemic situation being controlled and improved across the country,” according to state media.​ But Monday, the country reported 100,710 suspected new cases, more than the 89,500 reported a day earlier.


North Korea declared a “maximum emergency” on May 12, acknowledging a COVID-19 outbreak for the first time and locking down all the cities and counties. It said that the outbreak began in late April​,​ and that ​its daily caseload of suspected patients peaked at 390,000, which it ​reported May 16. But ​over the weekend, the reported caseload dipped below 100,000, and ​the government began saying that it had brought the pandemic under control.


Outside experts have cast doubt on the figures announced by North Korea, however.


The country measures its outbreak by the number of people found with fevers, not by the number of people who have ​actually ​tested positive with the coronavirus, because​ it lacks testing kits and labs. It said that only 70 people have died, although more than 3.5 million people have been found to have had fevers since April 2021. Its fatality rate, 0.002%, is among the lowest in the world, lower than the 0.13% reported in South Korea.


South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said it suspected that the North Koreans found with fevers may ​include people ​with diseases like pertussis, measles and typhoid, rather than solely COVID-19.


The intelligence agency told South Korean lawmakers that North Korea’s recent tests of three missiles was in part to demonstrate its confidence that it could overcome the outbreak without internal instability or outside aid. North Korea has refused to accept offers from South Korea, the United States and world health organizations to provide vaccines. The only aid it has accepted is emergency COVID medication from China, which it distributed to the elites living in its capital, Pyongyang, the agency said.


“There is a big gap in medical services between Pyongyang and the rest​ of the country​,” Kim Tae-hyo, ​South Korea’s deputy national security adviser, said last week.


On Monday, the South Korean government said it could not confirm news reports that North Korea may have partly lifted the lockdown in Pyongyang.​


“​If you take the North Korean figures at face value, the situation there seems to be improving,” said Cho Joong-hoon, spokesperson for the South’s Unification Ministry. “But we can’t say for sure, because we don’t know how the North has come up with its data.”

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