(ATTN: ADDS S. Korean government's statement in last 4 paras)
By Yi Wonju
SEOUL, May 13 (Yonhap) -- North Korea said Friday six people have died from COVID-19 and symptoms of fever were newly reported among more than 18,000 people nationwide the previous day, as leader Kim Jong-un formally blamed loopholes in the country's virus control and prevention system.
"On May 12 alone, some 18,000 persons with fever occurred nationwide and as of now up to 187,800 people are being isolated and treated," the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in its English-language report.
It reported six COVID-19 deaths, including one linked with the omicron variant.
The announcement came a day after Pyongyang acknowledged the coronavirus outbreak in the secretive country and declared a shift to a "maximum emergency" antivirus system.
Since late April, an unknown fever spread "explosively" across the North with a population of 24 million, affecting 350,000 people, according to the KCNA. It added that 162,200 people have been fully treated so far.
The North's intentions behind the abrupt move to make public its coronavirus crisis remain unconfirmed. It came as U.S. President Joe Biden is due in South Korea for summit talks with the country's new president Yoon Suk-yeol. Both Seoul and Washington have expressed their willingness to provide Pyongyang with coronavirus-related aid packages including vaccines and medical supplies. If realized, observers here say, it may help create a mood for the resumption of dialogue.
They raise the possibility that the North's virus woes have rapidly deepened due to recent massive public events, including a street military parade in the capital late last month.
The North's leader, meanwhile, inspected the state emergency epidemic prevention headquarters Thursday, the KCNA reported.
During his inspection, Kim "criticized" a failure to ward off the spread of COVID-19. "The simultaneous spread of fever with the capital area as a center shows that there is a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system," he was quoted as saying.
He called on all provinces, cities and counties to lock down their areas to prevent the further spread of the "malicious virus."
Kim then urged public health authorities to thoroughly observe all patients with symptoms of fever, set up scientific treatment methods and further strengthen the country's measures for supplying medicine.
"It is the most important challenge and supreme tasks facing our Party to reverse the immediate public health crisis situation at an early date, restore the stability of epidemic prevention and protect the health and wellbeing of our people," he said.
On Thursday, the North announced its first case of COVID-19. Kim appeared in public wearing a mask for the first time as he presided over an emergency politburo meeting.
North Korea has refused to accept millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine proposed in the COVAX global distribution program, as it had claimed to be coronavirus-free, with strict border controls in place over the past two years against the pandemic.
South Korea's unification ministry noted the North's revelation of confirmed COVID-19 patients on its soil was unprecedented and said Seoul is willing to provide medical and humanitarian assistance to the impoverished neighbor at any time.
"We are closely watching the situation in North Korea," Cha Duck-chul, the ministry's acting spokesperson, said at a regular briefing.
"Our government's stance is that assistance to North Koreans and inter-Korean cooperation in the quarantine and health care sectors can be carried out at any time from a humanitarian perspective."
The government, however, has not taken any concrete steps so far to offer coronavirus-related aid to the North, he added.
A total of 95.5 billion won (US$74.2 million) is earmarked already this year for inter-Korean cooperation in health care in the South-North Cooperation Fund, according to the ministry.