Two years out of step with much of the world, North Korea is finally facing an inevitable explosion in the number of Covid-19 cases. Leader Kim Jong-un on Monday slammed his country’s health authorities for their handling of the outbreak, which has claimed at least 50 lives since it officially emerged in the country, and ordered the army to mobilize .

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 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 military to get to work “to immediately stabilize the drug supply in Pyongyang”, where North Korea’s first Covid-19 cases were officially detected last week. Kim Jong-un has taken personal control of the fight against the epidemic, which he says is causing “great upheaval” in the country, whose population is not vaccinated.

Large-scale containments

The leader oversees near-daily emergency Politburo meetings, and North Korean media released photos of him visiting a pharmacy in Pyongyang on Sunday. Despite large-scale lockdowns, 1,213,550 people have been infected, 50 have died and 564,860 are under medical treatment, according to KCNA, which does not specifically cite Covid-19 but speaks of “fever”.

North Korea’s healthcare system was ranked 193rd out of 195 countries by a study by US Johns Hopkins University 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.

North Korea has cut itself off 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 outbreaks caused by 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.

A “zero Covid” strategy

According to KCNA, the North Korean leader has expressed his intention to draw 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 of locking down entire cities as soon as the slightest case appears, and systematically tracing and isolating the sick.

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 construction of a long-halted nuclear reactor. 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 South Korea’s aid 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 trial, he will not accept help from South Korea,” he said.