N Korea deploys army to help fight COVID as Seoul offers aid

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered the military to stabilise the distribution of COVID-19 medicines in Pyongyang, days after announcing a lockdown following the country’s first confirmed coronavirus outbreak.

North Korea acknowledged for the first time last week that it is battling an “explosive” COVID-19 outbreak, with experts raising concerns that the virus could devastate a country with limited medical supplies and no vaccine programme.

In a sign of how serious the situation may be, Kim “strongly criticised” healthcare officials at a politburo meeting on Sunday for what he called a botched response to epidemic prevention – specifically a failure to keep pharmacies open around the clock to distribute medicine.

He also 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.

The order came as North Korea reported 392,920 more people with fever symptoms, with eight new deaths.

The additional figures take North Korea’s tally of the fever-stricken to 1,213,550, with 50 deaths by Sunday. KCNA did not say how many suspected infections had tested positive for COVID-19.

The North has blamed a large number of the deaths on people who were “careless in taking drugs” because of a lack of knowledge about the Omicron variant of coronavirus and its correct treatment.

In neighbouring South Korea, President Yoon Sul-yeol said his government will spare no effort to help the North fight its outbreak. He told the parliament on Monday that his government was ready to provide COVID-19 vaccines and other medical support if Pyongyang agrees.

“We must not hold back on providing necessary assistance to the North Korean people, who are exposed to the threat of the coronavirus,” Yoon said during his first budget speech at the National Assembly.

“If the North Korean authorities accept, we will not spare any necessary support, such as medicine, including COVID-19 vaccines, medical equipment and healthcare personnel,” he said.

Seoul’s unification ministry, responsible for relations between the neighbours, said it would soon propose a plan of support to Pyongyang.