North Korea’s Kim says COVID-19 ‘great turmoil’, 21 new deaths reported

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the health crisis had been caused by the incompetence and irresponsibility of party organizations. (AP)
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Updated 14 May 2022

North Korea’s Kim says COVID-19 ‘great turmoil’, 21 new deaths reported

  • Pyongyang made an unprecedented admission of its first COVID-19 outbreak this week and imposed a nationwide lockdown

SEOUL: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said on Saturday that the spread of COVID-19 had thrust his country into “great turmoil” and called for an all-out battle to overcome the outbreak, while 21 new daily deaths were reported among people with fever.
North Korea made an unprecedented admission of its first COVID-19 outbreak this week and imposed a nationwide lockdown, after reporting no cases since the start of the pandemic two years ago. But there was no sign a rigorous testing or treatment campaign was under way.
“The spread of the malignant epidemic is a great turmoil to fall on our country since the founding,” state news agency KCNA quoted Kim as telling an emergency meeting of the country’s ruling Workers’ Party.
“But if we don’t lose focus in implementing epidemic policy and maintain strong organization power and control based on single-minded unity of the party and the people and strengthen our epidemic battle, we can more than overcome the crisis.”
Given North Korea’s limited testing capabilities, the numbers probably represent a fraction of total cases and could lead to thousands of deaths in one of only two countries without a vaccination campaign, experts have said.
The outbreak could also deepen an already dire food situation in the country, with the lockdown hampering anti-drought efforts and mobilization of labor.
The Workers’ Party meeting heard reports of about 280,810 people being treated and 27 deaths since a fever of unidentified origins was reported starting in late April, KCNA said.
State media did not say whether the new deaths were due to COVID-19. KCNA said on Friday that one death had been confirmed to be due to the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The meeting also heard a report from epidemic control officials that “in most cases, human casualties were caused by negligence including drug overdose due to lack of knowledge of treatment methods,” KCNA said.
Since late April, 524,440 people have shown signs of fever including 174,440 new cases on Friday, KCNA said. About 243,630 have been treated but KCNA has not said how many people have been tested nor confirmed the total number of COVID-19 cases.
North Korea has been testing about 1,400 people a week, according to Harvard Medical School’s Kee Park who has worked on health care projects in the country, not nearly enough to survey the hundreds of thousands of people with symptoms.
Leader Kim said the health crisis had been caused by the incompetence and irresponsibility of party organizations, but transmission was not uncontrollable and the country must have faith in its battle to overcome the crisis in the shortest possible period, KCNA said.
Kim offered to donate medical supplies, which had been kept in his household, to be used by families that are experiencing particular hardship “with his resolution to always share the destiny with the people,” KCNA said.
Kim also said health officials must learn from the experience of other advanced countries, including China’s accomplishments in fighting the epidemic, KCNA said.
There was discussion on urgently distributing medicine and adopting scientific treatment for people with fever and other symptoms to minimize casualties, KCNA said.
North Korea said that party officials, workers and youth continued to be mobilized for work to prevent drought damages and for rice-planting in different parts of the country, the KCNA reported separately.
Kim had ordered for economic and farm activities to continue when declaring a nationwide lockdown on Thursday.
North Korea has not reported on the possible source of the outbreak. But a Seoul-based website that reports from sources in North Korea said late on Friday some students of a university in Pyongyang had tested positive after participating in an event on May 1. Leader Kim had also attended the event.
The students had relatives who worked in trade with China and may have spread the virus when they subsequently visited their hometowns outside Pyongyang, the Daily NK website said citing a source in Pyongyang.
Reuters could not independently verify the report.
North Korea’s border with China was reopened for trade early this year, but in April China suspended freight services between its Dandong city and the North Korean town of Sinuiju due to the COVID-19 situation on its side.


UK police end Downing Street party inquiry, 126 fines issued

Updated 19 May 2022

UK police end Downing Street party inquiry, 126 fines issued

LONDON: British police said on Thursday they had ended their investigation into COVID-19 lockdown parties held at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Downing Street office, saying they had issued a total of 126 fines.
“Our investigation was thorough and impartial and was completed as quickly as we could, given the amount of information that needed to be reviewed and the importance of ensuring that we had strong evidence for each FPN (fixed penalty notice) referral,” London Police Acting Deputy Commissioner Helen Ball said.
“This investigation is now complete.”


One person wounded in German school shooting — police

Updated 19 May 2022

One person wounded in German school shooting — police

BERLIN: Shots were fired at a German school in the northern city of Bremerhaven on Thursday and one person was wounded, police said.
One person was detained after the shooting and the injured person was taken to hospital, they said.
German paper Bild had reported that a second suspect was on the run, armed with a crossbow. Police said they were looking into whether more than one person was involved.
The shooting took place at the Lloyd Gymnasium, Bild reported.
Online newspaper Nord24 said a schoolgirl who heard shots had called the police. Students barricaded themselves in their classrooms, it added.

North Korea completes preparation for nuclear weapon test: Seoul lawmaker

Updated 19 May 2022

North Korea completes preparation for nuclear weapon test: Seoul lawmaker

  • Biden will arrive in Seoul late Friday for a series of summits
  • North Korea announced its first COVID-19 cases last week, and is now reporting hundreds of thousands of cases of “fever” daily

SEOUL: North Korea has completed preparations for a nuclear test and is seeking the best moment to carry it out, a South Korean lawmaker said Thursday, a day before US President Joe Biden is due to arrive in Seoul.
Despite North Korea’s recent Covid-19 outbreak, “preparations for a nuclear test have been completed and they are only looking for the right time,” lawmaker Ha Tae-keung told reporters after being briefed by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service.
The United States said earlier it believes there is a “genuine possibility” that North Korea could conduct a nuclear test while Biden is on his first trip as president to Asia.
Biden will arrive in Seoul late Friday for a series of summits.
“Our intelligence does reflect the genuine possibility” of nuclear-capable missile tests or a nuclear weapon test around the time of Biden’s trip, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said.
Satellite imagery indicates North Korea is preparing to conduct a nuclear test, and the United States and South Korea have been warning for weeks that it could come any day.
North Korea announced its first COVID-19 cases last week, and is now reporting hundreds of thousands of cases of “fever” daily, with analysts saying a test could help distract the regime from the outbreak.


Battle for Mariupol draws toward close after surrender

Updated 19 May 2022

Battle for Mariupol draws toward close after surrender

  • The plant was the only thing standing in the way of Russia declaring the full capture of Mariupol

KYIV: The battle that turned Mariupol into a worldwide symbol of defiance and suffering drew toward a close as Russia said nearly 1,000 last-ditch Ukrainian fighters who held out inside a pulverized steel plant had surrendered.
Meanwhile, the first captured Russian soldier to be put on trial by Ukraine on war-crimes charges pleaded guilty Wednesday to killing a civilian and could get life in prison. Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO, abandoning generations of neutrality for fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not stop with Ukraine.
The Ukrainian fighters who emerged from the ruined Azovstal steelworks after being ordered by their military to abandon the last stronghold of resistance in the now-flattened port city face an uncertain fate. Some were taken by the Russians to a former penal colony in territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.
While Ukraine said it hopes to get the soldiers back in a prisoner swap, Russia threatened to put some of them on trial for war crimes.
Amnesty International said the Red Cross should be given immediate access to the fighters. Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty’s deputy director for the region, cited lawless executions allegedly carried out by Russian forces in Ukraine and said the Azovstal defenders “must not meet the same fate.”
It was unclear how many fighters remained inside the plant’s labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers, where 2,000 were believed to be holed up at one point. A separatist leader in the region said no top commanders had emerged from the steelworks.
The plant was the only thing standing in the way of Russia declaring the full capture of Mariupol. Its fall would make Mariupol the biggest Ukrainian city to be taken by Moscow’s forces, giving a boost to Putin in a war where many of his plans have gone awry.
Military analysts, though, said the city’s capture at this point would hold more symbolic importance than anything else, since Mariupol is already effectively under Moscow’s control and most of the Russian forces that were tied down by the drawn-out fighting have already left.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said 959 Ukrainian troops have abandoned the stronghold since they started coming out Monday.
Video showed the fighters carrying out their wounded on stretchers and undergoing pat-down searches before being taken away on buses escorted by military vehicles bearing the pro-Kremlin “Z” sign.
The US has gathered intelligence that shows some Russian officials have become concerned that Kremlin forces in Mariupol are carrying out abuses, including beating and electrocuting city officials and robbing homes, according to a USofficial familiar with the findings.
The Russian officials are concerned that the abuses will further inspire residents to resist the occupation and that the treatment runs counter to Russia’s claims that its military has liberated Russian speakers, according to the official, who was not authorized to comment.
Resistance fighting was reported in the occupied southern city of Melitopol, where the regional military administration said Ukrainians killed several high-ranking Russian officers and a Russian armored train carrying troops and ammunition overturned, causing the munitions to detonate.
The administration said on Telegram that the Russian military does not maintain the tracks and overloads the trains, and “with help” from resistance fighters the train derailed. The reports could not be independently confirmed.
In a sign of normalcy returning to Kyiv, the US Embassy reopened on Wednesday, one month after Russian forces abandoned their bid to seize the capital and three months after the outpost was closed. A dozen embassy employees watched solemnly as the American flag was raised. Other Western countries have been reopening their embassies in Kyiv as well.
In the war-crimes case in Kyiv, Russian Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old member of a tank unit, pleaded guilty to shooting an unarmed 62-year-old Ukrainian man in the head through a car window in the opening days of the war. Ukraine’s top prosecutor has said some 40 more war-crimes cases are being readied.
On the diplomatic front, Finland and Sweden could become members of NATO in a matter of months, though objections from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threaten to disrupt things. Turkey accuses the two countries of harboring Kurdish militants and others it considers a threat to its security.
Ibrahim Kalin, a foreign policy adviser and spokesman for Erdogan, said there will be “no progress” on the membership applications unless Turkey’s concerns are met. Each of NATO’s 30 countries has an effective veto over new members.
Mariupol’s defenders grimly clung to the steel mill for months and against the odds, preventing Russia from completing its occupation of the city and its port.
Its full capture would give Russia an unbroken land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014. It also would allow Russia to focus fully on the larger battle for the Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial east.
For Ukraine, the order to the fighters to surrender could leave President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government open to allegations it abandoned the troops he described as heroes.
“Zelensky may face unpleasant questions,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, who heads the independent Penta think tank in Kyiv. “There have been voices of discontent and accusations of betraying Ukrainian soldiers.”
A hoped-for prisoner swap could also fall through, he cautioned.
Russia’s main federal investigative body said it intends to interrogate the surrendering troops to “identify the nationalists” and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians.
Also, Russia’s top prosecutor asked the country’s Supreme Court to designate Ukraine’s Azov Regiment — among the troops that made up the Azovstal garrison — as a terrorist organization. The regiment has roots in the far right.
The Russian parliament was scheduled to consider a resolution to ban the exchange of any Azov Regiment fighters but didn’t take up the issue Wednesday.
Mariupol was a target of the Russians from the outset. The city — its prewar population of about 430,000 now reduced by about three-quarters — has largely been reduced to rubble by relentless bombardment, and Ukraine says over 20,000 civilians have been killed there.
In other developments, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said Russia has begun using a prototype new laser weapon in Ukraine that is capable of hitting a target 5 kilometers (3 miles) away, state news agency Tass quoted him as saying on national television. He said it was tested Tuesday against a drone and incinerated it within five seconds.
Borisov said a new generation of laser weapons will eventually allow Russia to conserve its expensive long-range missiles.
Speaking late Wednesday in his nightly video address, Zelensky likened the Russian boast to Nazi Germany’s claims of Wunderwaffe, or wonder weapons, as the tide began to turn against it during World War II.
A senior US defense official said Wednesday that the US has seen nothing to corroborate the claims. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the US military assessment.


North Korea’s suspected COVID-19 caseload nears 2 million

The official Korean Central News Agency said over 1.98 million people have become sick with fever since late April. (AFP)
Updated 19 May 2022

North Korea’s suspected COVID-19 caseload nears 2 million

  • The official Korean Central News Agency said more than 1.98 million people have become sick with fever since late April

SEOUL: North Korea on Thursday reported 262,270 more suspected COVID-19 cases as its pandemic caseload neared 2 million — a week after the country acknowledged the outbreak and scrambled to slow infections in its unvaccinated population.
The country is also trying to prevent its fragile economy from deteriorating further, but the outbreak could be worse than officially reported since the country lacks virus tests and other health care resources and may be underreporting deaths to soften the political impact on authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un.
North Korea’s anti-virus headquarters reported a single additional death, raising its toll to 63, which experts have said is abnormally small compared to the suspected number of coronavirus infections.
The official Korean Central News Agency said more than 1.98 million people have become sick with fever since late April. Most are believed to have COVID-19, though only a few omicron variant infections have been confirmed. At least 740,160 people are in quarantine, the news agency reported.
North Korea’s outbreak comes amid a provocative streak of weapons demonstrations, including its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile in nearly five years in March. Experts don’t believe the COVID-19 outbreak will slow Kim’s brinkmanship aimed at pressuring the United States to accept the idea of the North as a nuclear power and negotiating economic and security concessions from a position of strength.
After maintaining a dubious claim that it had kept the virus out of the country for two and a half years, North Korea acknowledged its first COVID-19 infections May 12 and has described a rapid spread since. Kim has called the outbreak a “great upheaval,” berated officials for letting the virus spread and restricted the movement of people and supplies between cities and regions.
Workers were mobilized to find people with suspected COVID-19 symptoms who were then sent to quarantine — the main method of curbing the outbreak since North Korea is short of medical supplies and intensive care units that lowered COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in other nations.
State media images showed health workers in hazmat suits guarding Pyongyang’s closed-off streets, disinfecting buildings and streets and delivering food and other supplies to apartment blocks.

 The official Korean Central News Agency said more than 1.98 million people have become sick with fever since late April
The official Korean Central News Agency said more than 1.98 million people have become sick with fever since late April. (AFP)

Despite the vast numbers of sick people and the efforts to curb the outbreak, state media describe large groups of workers continuing to gather at farms, mining facilities, power stations and construction sites. Experts say North Korea cannot afford a lockdown that would hinder production in an economy already broken by mismanagement, crippling US-led sanctions over Kim’s nuclear weapons ambitions and pandemic border closures.