The coronavirus has been spreading “explosively” in North Korea since April and killed at least six, state media said Friday in an unusual admission one day after dictator Kim Jong-un donned a mask and warned that a variant had slipped into the country.
The Korean Central News Agency said 350,000 people have developed fevers in recent weeks, including 18,000 on Thursday alone.
Mr. Kim ordered widespread lockdowns on Thursday after acknowledging the presence of COVID-19 for the first time. Until then, the reclusive nation claimed it boxed out the virus.
North Korea is ill-prepared to combat COVID-19. Few people are vaccinated in the country and its health system could be overrun.
The situation is sparking a debate about whether North Korea will seek or accept outside help after it resisted aid through the pandemic.
South Korea could see it as an opportunity to reengage with Pyongyang, though North Korea’s recent ballistic missile tests make talks difficult.
The U.S. does not have plans to share vaccines with North Korea after it repeatedly refused shots from COVAX, a global vaccine-sharing alliance.
“We do continue to support international efforts aimed at the provision of critical humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable North Koreans,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “This is, of course, a broader part of [North Korea] continuing to exploit its own citizens by not accepting this type of aid. As you know, it’s not just vaccines — it’s also a range of humanitarian assistance that could very much help the people in the country. And instead, they divert resources to build their unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”