By Josh Smith and Joori Roh
SEOUL (Reuters) – Leader Kim Jong Un has ordered the North Korean military to stabilize COVID-19 drug distribution in the capital Pyongyang in the fight to contain the country’s first confirmed outbreak of the disease, state media said.
Last week, the north brought the first confirmation of a “explosive” outbreak, with experts warning it could devastate a country with limited medical supplies and no vaccine program.
State-procured medicines were not reaching people quickly or accurately, Kim told an emergency Politburo meeting on Sunday, before visiting pharmacies near the capital’s Taedong River, state news agency KCNA said.
Kim ordered the immediate deployment of “powerful forces” from the army’s medical corps to “stabilize the supply of medicines in the city of Pyongyang,” he added.
Although authorities had ordered the distribution of national drug stocks, pharmacies are not well-equipped to carry out their duties smoothly, Kim added, the agency said.
Their shortcomings included a lack of proper medicine storage, vendors who were not equipped with proper hygiene clothing and hygiene in their environment that fell below standards, Kim said.
He criticized the “irresponsible” work attitude, organization and execution by the cabinet and the public health sector, he added.
Seoul’s unification ministry, which is responsible for cross-border relations, said it had proposed working-level talks to provide medical supplies, including vaccines, masks and testing kits, as well as technical cooperation, but the North had not received its message.
The offer came shortly after South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said he would spare no effort to help the north fight its outbreak and said he was ready to provide COVID-19 vaccines and other medical support.
Yoon said he would provide humanitarian aid without political considerations, but expressed concern about the North’s recent missile launches and signs of preparations for the first nuclear test since 2017.
“If North Korea responds, I would not spare necessary support for medicines, including COVID vaccines, medical equipment and health workers,” he said in a speech to parliament.
North Korea’s fever case toll stood at 1,213,550, with 50 deaths as of Sunday, after KCNA reported 392,920 more cases of fever and eight more deaths. It didn’t say how many suspected infections tested positive for COVID-19.
The North has blamed a large number of the deaths on people who were “careless in taking drugs” due to a lack of knowledge about the Omicron variant of the coronavirus and how to treat it properly.
(Reporting by Josh Smith and Joori Roh; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Gerry Doyle)