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North Korea reported a new “epidemic” of intestinal disease on Thursday, an unusual announcement from the secretive country already struggling with a COVID-19 outbreak and severe economic unrest.
It is unclear how many people are infected in what the official Korean news agency said was “an acute enteric epidemic” in the southwestern city of Haeju.
The agency has not named the disease, but enteric refers to intestinal diseases, such as typhoid, dysentery and cholera, which are caused by bacteria in contaminated food or water or contact with the feces of infected people. Such diseases occur routinely in North Korea, where there is a shortage of water treatment plants and the public health system has largely been destroyed for decades.
Some observers said that the purpose of the announcement was not so much to report the infections themselves as to mention that leader Kim Jong Un donated medicine from his personal warehouse – an apparent attempt to polish his image in a moment of extreme difficulty.
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The official Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim donated medicine from what it referred to as the family’s reserves. The country’s most important newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, had a cover photo showing Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, looking at saline solutions and medicines that the newspaper said they donated.
In a country where power is concentrated in the hands of a small ruling elite and hospitals often lack even basic supplies, defectors say it is common for anyone who can have stockpiles of medicine in their homes – and senior officials are usually able to to save more than ordinary citizens. Observers also said the donated medicine may have simply come from government storage facilities, but was distributed in Kim’s name.
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“The outbreak of measles or typhus is not uncommon in North Korea. I think it’s true that there is an outbreak of a contagious disease there, but North Korea uses it as an opportunity to emphasize that Kim cares about her people,” said Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website focusing on health issues in North Korea. “So it’s more like a political message than a medical one.”
Last month, North Korea reported an increasing number of patients with fever. At the time, the South Korean spy agency said that “a significant number” of cases included patients with measles, typhoid and pertussis.
KCNA said on Thursday that more than 4.5 million of the country’s 26 million people have become ill due to unidentified fever and 73 have died. The country, which apparently lacks coronavirus test kits, has identified only a fraction of those who confirmed COVID-19 cases. Many foreign experts question the Nordic death toll, and say that it is probably underreported to protect Kim from any political damage.
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North Korea recently claimed progress in slowing the spread of COVID-19 over the unvaccinated population, although a top official from the World Health Organization said this month that the agency believes the outbreak is getting worse.
During an intergovernmental conference last week, Kim claimed that the pandemic had passed the stage of “serious crisis.” But the country still maintains high restrictions. Some external experts have said that the measures will further burden the country’s already troubled economy affected by prolonged pandemic-related border shutdowns and UN sanctions.
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Late Thursday, the South Korean Ministry of Association renewed its offer of help with health issues. After the North first announced the outbreak of covid-19, South Korea and the United States offered to send vaccines and other medical supplies, but the North did not respond.