(Bloomberg) -- Kim Jong Un mobilized North Korea’s military to help fight one of the biggest crises he has faced in his decade as leader, as suspected Covid-19 cases reached nearly 1.5 million in less than a month.

Pyongyang reported 269,510 new “fever cases” and six deaths nationwide in a 24-hour period ending 6 p.m. Monday, the state’s official Korean Central News Agency reported. Since late April 56 people have died.

North Korea has not called the hundreds of thousands of fever cases “Covid,” likely because the reclusive country doesn’t have enough testing kits to confirm that the cases were caused by the coronavirus.

The spreading cases indicate the country may be facing a public health crisis that could overwhelm its antiquated medical system. The country is even more vulnerable after it refused vaccines. Estimates from the United Nations’ food aid agency said about 40% of its population is undernourished, which could magnify the impact of the virus.

“The Covid situation could be a real threat to regime stability unless North Korea can effectively and quickly contain the spread of the virus,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a non-resident fellow with the 38 North Program at the Stimson Center. 

“Kim Jong Un has had to deal with his share of problems since coming to power, but none of them threatened national existence the way this crisis is,” said Lee, who worked as an analyst for the CIA’s Open Source Enterprise for almost two decades.

Most international aid workers left the country after it closed its borders at the start of the pandemic and North Korea has so far refused or ignored international offers for assistance.


“With the country yet to initiate Covid-19 vaccination, there is risk that the virus may spread rapidly among the masses unless curtailed with immediate and appropriate measures,” Poonam Khetrapal Singh, a regional director for the World Health Organization said in a statement.

Meanwhile, authorities have stepped up efforts to “immediately rectify the deviations” in its distribution of medical supplies by deploying its military in its quarantining measures, according to the state media report. 

Earlier this week, state media reported that Kim reprimanded cadres at a top-level party meeting for failing to execute his public health orders. The state’s propaganda apparatus has shown him as diligently working to prevent an outbreak, likely in an attempt to shift responsibility to lower-ranking officials while the disease spreads under his watch.

“Kim calling meetings and doing site visits through it all is quite interesting -- he’s not hiding from it -- but is likely also meant to show he’s on top of the situation (to a domestic audience) while still pushing the blame for it down to lowers level of leadership,” said Jenny Town, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office on May 10 on pledges to take a tough line on Pyongyang for its security threats, offered to send Covid vaccines and other medicines across the border, but has had no reply from North Korea.

Yoon’s government tried to send a message to Pyongyang on Monday to propose working-level talks on providing coronavirus aid including vaccines, yet North Korea was yet to accept the message, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said.

A recent United Nations report said North Korea and Eritrea are the only two countries in the world that have not administered vaccines.

North Korea may want Covid treatment drugs, rather than vaccines, said Wang Son-taek, director of the Global Policy Center at the Han Pyeong Peace Institute in South Korea. 

“The number of vaccine doses it could get from the international community wouldn’t be enough to prevent the rapid spreading of the coronavirus,” Wang said. “But when it comes to treatment drugs, North Korea may show a different stance.”

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