Meant to be a triumphant celebration of North Korea's martial prowess, a giant military parade to celebrate the founding of the military may have unwittingly spread COVID-19 across the country, experts say.
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North Korea announced its first death from COVID-19 on Friday, saying the virus has already spread across the country, with a "fever" having "explosively spread across the country from end of April,” according to the official KCNA news agency.
For Hong Min, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, based in Seoul, the current COVID-19 pandemic is “closely linked to the April 25 parade,” a gigantic military parade on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Korean People's Revolutionary Army.
Footage of the event broadcast by state television shows thousands of people — unmasked and without social distancing — crowded into Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang to watch the parade of soldiers and applaud the passing of tanks, launchers rockets and large intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
"More than 20,000 people prepared for the parade two months before the event and stayed in the capital for photo ops with Kim Jong Un," Hong Min told AFP.
According to him, Kim Jong Un's regime only seems to have "realized the seriousness" of the situation late and carried out Covid-19 screening tests after the parade participants returned to their districts.
“Holding a military parade in the presence of a large crowd, while the Omicron variant was raging in neighboring China, shows that Pyongyang was overconfident in its abilities to fight and prevent the virus”, assures Cheong Seong- chang, from the Sejong Institute.
None of the 25 million population is vaccinated against the coronavirus, with Pyongyang having rejected offers of vaccinations from the World Health Organization, China and Russia.
North Korea was one of the first countries to close its borders in January 2020 after the virus emerged in neighboring China.
Its strict isolation policy initially appeared to keep Covid at bay, and the country reported no cases for two years, although that claim is doubted by some experts.
Pyongyang even held a nighttime military parade in September 2021 with no reported consequences, although photographs from that event show participants wearing masks.
But over time, it appears North Korea has slackened its vigilance domestically, with state media reporting on the fight against the outbreak more sporadically, analysts said.
At the time of the 2021 parade, the movement of people and goods to and from China was under near-total lockdown, notes Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
But earlier this year, North Korea briefly eased its health restrictions, likely leading to the current Omicron outbreak, he adds.
"The virus was able to enter North Korea through three different routes: railways, shipping and smuggling," he added.
"The fact is that he came from China."