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Kim Jong Un slams health officials, tabs military to help contain N. Korea COVID-19 surge

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Kim Jong Un slams health officials, tabs military to help contain N. Korea COVID-19 surge
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited pharmacies and criticized health officials over a slow rollout of medicines to help contain the country's first major COVID-19 outbreak, state media reported Monday. Photo by KCNA/EPA-EFE

SEOUL, May 16 (UPI) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has blamed health officials for failing to swiftly deliver medicines to the public amid a fast-growing COVID-19 surge and ordered the military to step in and "stabilize" distribution, state media reported Monday.

Pyongyang officially reported its first coronavirus infections last Thursday and warned of an "explosive" outbreak as it scrambled to contain the virus with emergency measures, including widespread lockdowns.

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Kim led a meeting of the ruling Workers' Party politburo on Sunday and "strongly criticized" officials for not immediately releasing state reserves of medicines to pharmacies, blaming their "irresponsible work attitude and organizing and executing ability," Korean Central News Agency reported.

Officials in charge of the supply "have not rolled up their sleeves," Kim said.

RELATED Kim Jong Un: N. Korea in 'great turmoil' due to COVID-19 outbreak

The country's disease control headquarters has reported more than 1.2 million cases of what it identified as an unspecified fever and at least 50 deaths.

At the politburo meeting, Kim ordered the "powerful forces of the military medical field of the People's Army" to work at "immediately stabilizing the supply of medicines in Pyongyang," KCNA reported.

The North Korean leader also visited pharmacies in Pyongyang and criticized their "poor situation." He said that most had inadequate supplies of medicine and unhygienic environments.

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South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said Monday that his government would "spare no effort" to help North Korea with its COVID-19 outbreak. File Photo by Yonhap/EPA-EFE

North Korea was quick to completely seal its borders in January 2020 after the first outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, and didn't report a single official case until last week -- although virtually all outside experts highly doubt that claim.

Pyongyang has rejected offers of vaccine help from China, Russia and the United Nations-aligned COVAX global vaccine sharing program, and experts warn that the country is not equipped to handle a COVID-19 outbreak.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said Monday that Seoul would "spare no effort" to help North Korea.

RELATED North Korea officially reports first COVID-19 case, orders national lockdown

"I have repeatedly expressed my intention to open up humanitarian aid at any time without any political or military considerations in inter-Korean relations," the newly inaugurated Yoon said during his first address to South Korean Parliament.

"If the North Korean authorities respond, we will spare no effort in providing necessary support such as medicines, including vaccines, medical equipment and health personnel."

Yoon said when he was inaugurated last week that he hoped to engage with North Korean peace efforts.

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Pyongyang has reached out to China for unspecified COVID-19 supplies and equipment, Yonhap News Agency reported on Sunday, and U.S. President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit Seoul this week. Biden will meet with Yoon on Saturday.

The White House has said it has no plans to share vaccines from the U.S. supply with North Korea, but would support international humanitarian aid efforts.

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