Commentary: What’s behind North Korea’s admission of a COVID-19 outbreak now after long insisting it is COVID-free?

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SEOUL: COVID-19 has finally come to North Korea. Pyongyang now claims the “fever” is spreading rapidly, with as many as 1.72 million infected and 62 deaths as of Tuesday (May 17). North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has appeared on television wearing a mask for the first time. 

While the world spent the last two years fighting waves of infection, North Korea stuck to its COVID-free claim. That is, until May 12 when it confirmed its first outbreak. Of course, international observers believe it is unlikely that North Korea only just experienced COVID-19. 

Perhaps in the earlier stages of the pandemic, North Korea was able to keep infection numbers manageable – but not with the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Now, with 26 million people believed to be unvaccinated and after it turned down vaccine doses allocated under the COVAX programme in 2021, a medical crisis among the wider population would be a disaster in North Korea.

A central question arises: Why has North Korea decided to tell the world about this large outbreak? Likely because it is desperate.


North Korea is best known for its nuclear missile program and aggressive rhetoric. It fired three ballistic missiles hours after announcing the first COVID-19 cases.

Less is known about North Korean healthcare. Non-governmental organisations and North Koreans who have defected to South Korea or the West often note the poor quality of healthcare in the small towns in...

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