SEOUL - North Korea has reported 21 new deaths and another 174,400 cases of fever, as leader Kim Jong Un warned that the country is facing "great turmoil" due to the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) released the figures on Saturday (May 14), after Mr Kim chaired a politburo meeting to review the regime's "maximum emergency" anti-virus system and discuss how to swiftly distribute medical supplies.
"The spread of the malignant epidemic is a great turmoil to fall on our country since the founding," he was cited as saying.
Mr Kim has ordered a lockdown of major cities and told officials to learn from other countries' successful virus control measures, especially China's.
He also urged people to have faith that they can overcome the outbreak soon, as the transmissions are contained within certain communities that have already been isolated and not spreading across regions.
The situation is not uncontrollable, he added.
North Korea announced its first Covid-19 case on Thursday (May 12), at a time when the two-year-long pandemic is moving into the endemic phase in South Korea.
Seoul added 29,581 new cases on Saturday, bringing the total to 17,756,627.
In North Korea, a total of 524,440 people showed symptoms of fever between late April and May 13, KCNA said.
It added that 280,810 people are undergoing treatment, while the rest have fully recovered. The death toll has climbed to 27.
Analysts said the actual infection figures may be higher, as North Korea does not have enough diagnostics kits and is just reporting cases of fever, not other Covid-19-related symptoms.
A major outbreak is feared to have dire consequences, given the country's poor healthcare system and lack of medical supplies.
Its 25 million population is vulnerable to the coronavirus as North Korea rejected offers of vaccines several times last year, insisting that it was free of Covid-19 due to effective lockdown measures.
It is one of only two countries in the world that did not embark on mass vaccination, the other being Eritrea in Africa.
South Korea's President Yoon Suk-yeol on Friday offered to send vaccines and other medical supplies to North Korea. A spokesman said the government will hold talks with North Korea regarding the details.
South Korea, which has a high vaccination rate of over 86 per cent, has a surplus of Covid-19 vaccines.
Data released in April showed that about 2.3 million doses had to be discarded as they had expired. Yet another 145 million doses are scheduled to arrive later this year, raising questions of how they can be used effectively.
Dr Cheong Seong-chang of South Korea's Sejong Institute think-tank said the situation in North Korea is getting increasingly serious, citing the jump in daily infection figures.
"It will be difficult for North Korea to overcome this crisis on its own," he said. "The spread of the virus is expected to create great chaos in North Korea for at least several months, even until next year."
Dr Cheong expects North Korea to follow China's lead in virus control measures and ask Beijing to help provide treatment drugs and test kits.
He urged South Korea to cooperate with China, the United States, Europe and Japan to jointly provide vaccines, treatment, test kits and equipment for treating seriously ill patients in North Korea, while working closely with China to "block North Korea's plans for a seventh nuclear test" and allow South Korean non-governmental groups to go into the North to help with quarantine measures.
Other experts, however, said the pandemic may do little to curb the regime's nuclear ambitions.
Pyongyang tested three short-range ballistic missiles just hours after its Covid-19 announcement on Thursday, marking its 16th provocation this year.
"North Korea's latest missile firings appear excessive to what would be needed to test and improve military capabilities," said Ewha Womans University's associate professor of international studies Leif-Eric Easley.
"These launches look like a show of strength... Engagement won't be easy because even international humanitarian assistance will have to navigate Pyongyang's political pathologies."