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North Korea’s Kim Jong Un Faces ‘‘Huge Dilemma’’ On Aid As Virus Surges

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SEOUL, May 17 (AP): During more than a decade as North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un has made “self-reliance” his governing lynchpin, shunning international help and striving instead for domestic strategies to fix his battered economy.

But as an illness suspected to be Covid-19 sickens hundreds of thousands of his people, Kim stands at a critical crossroad: Either swallow his pride and receive foreign help to fight the disease, or go it alone, enduring potential huge fatalities that may undermine his leadership.

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“Kim Jong Un is in a dilemma, a really huge dilemma,” said Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul. “If he accepts US or Western assistance, that can shake the self-reliance stance that he has steadfastly maintained and public confidence in him could be weakened.”

Doing nothing, however, could be calamitous.

Since acknowledging a Covid-19 outbreak last week, North Korea has said “an explosively spreading fever” has killed 56 people and sickened about 1.5 million others. Outside observers suspect most of those cases were caused by the coronavirus.

Whatever North Korea’s state-controlled media say about those who are sick, the outbreak is likely several times worse. North Korea lacks sufficient Covid-19 tests, and experts say it is significantly understating deaths to avoid possible public unrest that could hurt Kim politically.

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Some observers say the stated death toll is low for a country where most of the 26 million people are unvaccinated and medicine is in short supply.

The North’s apparent underreporting of deaths is meant to defend Kim’s authority as he faces “the first and biggest crisis” of his decade of rule, Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University, said.

The North Korean outbreak may be linked to a massive military parade in Pyongyang in late April that Kim organised to feature new weapons and loyal troops. The parade drew tens of thousands of soldiers and residents from around the country. After the event, Kim spent several days taking dozens of commemorative group photos with parade participants, all of whom were without masks. Most of the photos involved dozens or hundreds of people.

North Korea may be able to publicly hide the real number of deaths, but the country’s strengthened restrictions on movement and quarantine rules could hurt its agricultural cultivation. Its economy is already battered by more than two years of pandemic-caused border shutdowns and other curbs.

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North Korea is also worried about a shortage of medical supplies and food and daily necessities that have dried up in markets during the border closures, Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, said.

“They are experiencing another arduous march,’’’ Yang said, referring to the state’s euphemism for a devastating famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Kim has previously rebuffed millions of doses of vaccines offered by the U.N.-backed COVAX distribution program. After the North admitted to an outbreak, South Korean and China offered to send vaccines, medicine and other medical supplies to North Korea. The United States said it supports international aid efforts, though it has no current plans to share its vaccine supplies with the North.

Receiving outside help would put the North, which is always intensely proud, despite its poverty, in a difficult position. Kim had repeatedly touted his country as “impregnable” to the pandemic during the past two years. On Saturday, however, he said his country faces “a great upheaval” and that officials must study how China, his country’s only major ally, and other nations have handled the pandemic.

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The Hills Timeshttps://www.thehillstimes.in/
The Hills Times, a largely circulated English daily published from Diphu and printed in Guwahati, having vast readership in hills districts of Assam, and neighbouring Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur.
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