The supreme leader of North Korea is stepping up to the plate.

Leader Kim Jong-un castigated his country's health authorities on Monday (May 16) for their handling of the Covid-19 epidemic and ordered the army to mobilize.

The country is facing an epidemic wave, with more than a million infected and at least 50 dead since its official appearance, while the country has no vaccine or treatment and does not have the capacity to massively test its population.

In a sign of the seriousness of the situation, the North Korean leader "strongly criticized the government and the public health sector for their irresponsible attitude", reported the state agency KCNA.

During a Politburo meeting, he complained in particular about the fact that pharmacies were not open 24 hours a day.

Drug supply officials "did not roll up their sleeves and properly assess the current crisis", he lamented, according to KCNA.

He ordered the army to get to work "to immediately stabilize the supply of medicines to Pyongyang", where the first cases of Covid-19 in North Korea were officially detected last week.

Kim Jong-un has taken personal control of the fight against the epidemic, which, according to him, is causing "great upheavals" in the country, whose population is not vaccinated.

The leader oversees near-daily emergency Politburo meetings, and North Korean media released photos of him visiting a pharmacy in Pyongyang on Sunday (May 15).

"Fever"

Despite large-scale confinements, 1,213,550 people have been infected, 50 have died and 564,860 are under medical treatment, according to KCNA, which does not expressly cite Covid-19 but speaks of "fever".

North Korea's healthcare system was ranked 193rd out of 195 countries in a study by Johns Hopkins University of the United States last year.

The country's hospitals are poorly equipped, with few intensive care units.

According to experts, the country has no treatment for Covid-19 and does not have the capacity to massively test its population.

"By visiting a pharmacy, Kim Jong-un was able to see with his own eyes the shortage of medicines in North Korea," Cheong Seong-jang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, told AFP.

"The situation was perhaps more serious than he thought," he adds.

Inspired by China's "zero Covid" strategy?

North Korea has cut itself off more from the world for more than two years to protect itself from the pandemic.

But experts considered it inevitable that the virus would eventually infiltrate the country, given the epidemic outbreaks due to the Omicron variant in neighboring countries.

Kim Jong-un's public vilification of his own government reflects the "sense of crisis" that has gripped the regime, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

“He puts his finger on the general inadequacy of the quarantine system,” says this analyst.

According to KCNA, the North Korean leader expressed his intention to take inspiration from China's strategy to fight the pandemic.

China is one of the last countries in the world to practice a “zero Covid” policy consisting of confining entire cities as soon as the slightest case appears, and systematically tracing and isolating the sick.

Pyongyang could "seek help from the United States or international organizations"

North Korea has refused offers of Covid-19 vaccines from China and the World Health Organization's (WHO) Covax program, but Beijing and Seoul have again reached out.

Yang said Pyongyang is likely to need help to weather the outbreak, but that from China may not be enough.

"If China's aid is not enough to overcome the epidemic, North Korea will eventually seek help from the South, the United States or international organizations," predicts this professor.

"But the timing will be key. I think the results of the South Korea-US summit on May 21 will be an important criterion for North Korea to decide whether or not to accept the offer of aid from the South," he continues.

US President Joe Biden is expected in Seoul this weekend to meet his new South Korean counterpart Yoon Suk-yeol.

Pyongyang's weapons programs and the Covid-19 outbreak will likely top the agenda at this summit.

Despite the health crisis, new satellite images indicate that North Korea has resumed the construction of a nuclear reactor long interrupted.

Washington and Seoul suspect Pyongyang of preparing a nuclear test, which would be the seventh in its history and the first since 2017.

In this context, accepting aid from South Korea against Covid-19 would hurt the ego of the North Korean regime and force it to refrain from carrying out this nuclear test, explains Cheong Seong-jang, researcher at the Sejong Institute.

"If Kim Jong Un is determined to carry out a test, he will not accept help from South Korea," he said.

With AFP

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