World experts have dismissed North Korea's claims regarding its COVID-19 outbreak, that of 3.3 million people reported sick with fever, only 69 have died.
That would be a fatality rate of 0.002 per cent, something no other country, including the world's richest, has achieved against a disease that has killed more than 6 million people.
Experts say the impoverished country would have suffered far greater deaths than reported because there are very few vaccines, a sizable number of undernourished people and a lack of critical care facilities and test kits to detect virus cases in large numbers.
Some observers say North Korea is underreporting fatalities to protect leader Kim Jong Un. There's also a possibility it might have exaggerated the outbreak in a bid to bolster control of its 26 million people.
"Scientifically, their figures can't be accepted," said Lee Yo Han, a professor at Ajou University Graduate School of Public Health in South Korea, adding that the public data "were likely all controlled (by the authorities) and embedded with their political intentions."
One possible course is that North Korea soon proclaims victory over COVID-19, maybe during a June political meeting, with all credit given to Kim's leadership. The 38-year-old ruler is desperate, observers say, to win bigger public support as he deals with severe economic difficulties caused by border shutdowns, UN sanctions and his own mismanagement.
"Diverse public complaints have accumulated, so it's time to (strengthen) internal control," said Choi Kang, president of Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies. "Kim Jong Un has been taking the lead in the anti-epidemic efforts to show that his campaign is very successful and to reinforce his grip on power."
Before North Korea on May 12 admitted to an omicron outbreak, it had maintained a widely disputed claim that it had zero domestic infections for more than two years. When the North at last publicised the outbreak, many wondered why now.
Kim has held several Politburo meetings to criticise officials, inspected pharmacies at dawn and mobilised troops to support medicine delivery. State newspapers have churned out articles on how to deal with fever, including gargling with saltwater and drinking honey or willow leaf tea.
North Korea's daily fever tally peaked at nearly 400,000 early last week; it has fallen to around 100,000 in the past few days. On Friday, it added one more death after claiming no fatalities for three consecutive days.
In a study published by the Johns Hopkins University last year, North Korea ranked 193 out of 195 countries for its ability to deal with an epidemic. UN reports in recent years said about 40 per cent of its people were undernourished. North Korea's free socialist public health care system has been in shambles for decades, and defectors testify that while in the North, they bought medicines at markets or somewhere else.
Moon Jin Soo, director of the Institute for Health and Unification Studies at Seoul National University says it's urgent to ship anti-viral pills and other essential medications to North Korea, rather than vaccines for a lengthy rollout.
"North Korea could spend a couple more months massaging the statistics, but they could also abruptly announce their victory this weekend," said Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website focusing on health issues in North Korea. "North Korea always operates beyond your imagination. It's hard to predict what they'll do, but they do have a plan."
Australian Associated Press
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