North Korea’s Kim Jong Un criticised “irresponsible” officials over the country’s pandemic response and ordered the army to help distribute medicine, state media said on May 16, as Seoul offered Covid-19 aid.
More than a million people have been ill with what Pyongyang refers to as “fever”, state media said, despite leader Kim ordering nationwide lockdowns in a bid to slow the spread of disease through the unvaccinated population.
In a sign of how serious the situation may be, Kim “strongly criticised” healthcare officials for what he called a botched response to epidemic prevention – specifically a failure to keep pharmacies open 24/7 to distribute medicine.
He ordered the army to get to work “on immediately stabilising the supply of medicines in Pyongyang”, the capital, where Omicron was detected last week in North Korea’s first reported cases of Covid-19.
Kim has put himself front and centre of North Korea’s disease response, overseeing near-daily emergency Politburo meetings on the outbreak, which he has said is causing “great upheaval” in the country.
The failure to distribute medicine properly was “because officials of the Cabinet and public health sector in charge of the supply have not rolled up their sleeves, not properly recognising the present crisis”, state media KCNA reported Kim as saying.
Kim, who inspected pharmacies first hand, “strongly criticised the Cabinet and public health sector for their irresponsible work attitude”, KCNA said.
He also criticised lapses in official legal oversight, flagging “several negative phenomena in the nationwide handling and sale of medicines”.
North Korea has one of the world’s worst healthcare systems, with poorly-equipped hospitals, few intensive care units, and no Covid-19 treatment drugs or mass testing ability, experts say.
“While visiting a pharmacy, Kim Jong Un saw with his eyes the shortage of medicines in North Korea,” Cheong Seong-jang, researcher at the Sejong Institute told AFP.
“He may have guessed but the situation may have been more serious than he had expected.”
KCNA said that as of May 15, a total of 50 people had died, with 1,213,550 cases of “fever” and over half a million currently receiving medical treatment.
North Korea had maintained a rigid blockade since the pandemic began, but with massive Omicron outbreaks in neighbouring countries, experts said it was inevitable Covid would sneak in.