North Korea reveals swine flu outbreak

Reclusive North Korea on Wednesday took the unusual step of acknowledging that it had suffered an outbreak of H1N1 flu, with foreign aid officials saying the virus has killed dozens of people.

The Public Health Ministry confirmed an outbreak in the city of Sinuiju, on the border with China, and in Pyongyang, the capital, according to the official Korean Central News Agency. But so far, North Korea has acknowledged only nine deaths.

“The relevant [agency] is further perfecting the quarantine system against the spread of this flu virus while properly carrying on the prevention and medical treatment,” the agency said.

The report of the outbreak came a day after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak ordered health officials in Seoul to verify the reports of one, investigate ways to help North Korea and prepare flu medications and humanitarian aid.

The outbreak of H1N1, commonly referred to as swine flu, was first reported by a Seoul-based North Korean aid group. In its newsletter, Good Friends reported a “new type of flu” that it warned could spread across the nation.

“Considering the current trend, the possibility of the spread of the flu nationwide cannot be excluded,” the bulletin said.

“The North Korean government seems to be working hard by taking measures such as strengthening the custom inspection . . . importing the vaccine, informing the residents about the risk factors of the flu and ordering early winter break for schools.”

Lee Seung-yong, general manager of Good Friends, estimated that 50 people had died since the flu broke out in November.

“Usually, North Korea does not tell the outside world about its national disasters,” he said. The admission “is very unusual, and the spreading flu is something that North Korea cannot hide.”

Chung Young-chul, a North Korea expert at Sogang University in Seoul, said North Korea had little to lose by going public.

“The H1N1 influenza is a global issue; it’s not only North Korea’s problem,” he said, “so no political pressure exists.”

Still, North Korea for weeks had kept quiet about its mounting death toll.

South Korea’s overture and the need to impose a quarantine persuaded Pyongyang to acknowledge the flu outbreak, said Lee, the Good Friends manager.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Tuesday that the agency was considering offering North Korea stores of the antiviral drug Tamiflu.

“We plan to prepare specific measures in order to make the aid happen as soon as possible without condition on a humanitarian level,” ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said.

Since taking office last year, President Lee has maintained a more hard-line stance on North Korea, insisting on more open communication in exchange for financial aid.

Analysts say that stance has not changed but that the conservative South Korean leader appears to be willing to provide limited amounts of humanitarian assistance.

Park is a researcher in The Times’ Seoul Bureau.