North Korea reports first outbreak of COVID-19, orders lockdown as ‘most serious emergency’

  • North Korea declares ‘most serious national emergency’
  • Potential for ‘unprecedented crisis’ for Kim Jong Un – expert
  • Isolated state declined international vaccine offer
  • No North Korean civilian would be vaccinated

SEOUL, May 12 (Reuters) – North Korea confirmed its first outbreak of COVID-19 on Thursday, calling it the “most serious national emergency” and ordering a nationwide lockdown, with state media reporting that a variant of Omicron had been detected in Pyongyang.

The first public admission of COVID infections highlights the potential for a major crisis in a country that lacks medical resources and has refused international aid for vaccinations and kept its borders closed.

As of March, no cases of COVID-19 have been reported, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and there are no official records of vaccinated North Koreans.

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“The most serious emergency in the state has occurred: a rupture has been made on our emergency epidemic prevention front which has been strongly defended until now,” the official news agency said. KCNA.

Samples taken on May 8 from people in Pyongyang who were suffering from fever showed a subvariant of the Omicron virus, also known as BA.2, according to the report, without specifying the number of cases or the possible sources of the virus. ‘infection.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful political bureau on Thursday, ordering a “strict lockdown” across the country and the mobilization of emergency reserve medical supplies.

“The state’s epidemic prevention work will be transferred to the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system,” KCNA said.

State television showed Kim attending the politburo meeting wearing a disposable face mask. In past footage of such meetings or other events, everyone but him wore a mask.

North Korea had never officially confirmed a COVID-19 infection, South Korea and US officials said an outbreak in the isolated country could not be ruled out, as it had trade and people-to-people exchanges with the China before sealing the border in early 2020.

Kim enforced strict quarantine measures, including intra-provincial movement, and in July 2020 declared an emergency and imposed a three-week lockdown in Kaesong, near the inter-Korean border, after a man who defected to the South in 2017 returned to the city with symptoms of COVID.

The latest WHO data showed that 64,207 of North Korea’s 25 million people have been tested for COVID-19 and all have tested negative as of March 31.

North Korea had refused vaccine supplies from the COVAX share program and China’s Sinovac Biotech vaccine, suggesting the vast majority of civilians may not be vaccinated. Read more

The office of South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, who was sworn in on Tuesday, said it would not tie humanitarian aid to the political situation.

Kwon Young-se, Yoon’s candidate for unification minister in charge of inter-Korean relations, said during his confirmation hearing that he would prepare humanitarian aid for the North, including COVID treatment, syringes and drugs. other medical supplies.

News of the outbreak came after the United States. and South Korean officials have warned the North could conduct its first nuclear test since 2017 as early as this month, after breaking a 2017 moratorium on long-range missile testing. Read more


At the politburo meeting, Kim said the emergency measures aim to curb the spread of the virus and quickly eliminate the source of transmission. The political bureau criticized “lack of awareness, laxity, irresponsibility and incompetence” of anti-epidemic officials, KCNA said.

A failure to contain infections could be an “unprecedented crisis” for Kim’s leadership, said Lim Eul-chul, professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in South Korea.

“Given a more inferior vaccination situation and testing capacity and public health infrastructure compared to China, as well as the lack of intensive care units, there is potential for dozens victims,” ​​he said.

South Korea’s central bank said in July 2021 that the North’s economy suffered its biggest contraction in 23 years in 2020, weighed down by border controls, UN sanctions and bad weather. Read more

Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute noted that North Korea’s nationwide lockdown is likely to be extremely disruptive over time, worsening food shortages and public confusion.

Professor Yang Moo-jin of Seoul University of North Korean Studies said Kim’s calling of the politburo meeting at dawn could be an indirect plea for help from the international community.

Earlier on Thursday, Chinese state television reported that North Korea had asked its residents to stay home since Tuesday as many had “suspected flu symptoms”, without referring to COVID-19.

NK News, a South Korea-based website monitoring North Korea, also said this week that residents of Pyongyang have been asked to stay indoors due to a “national issue” without details.

The main crossing point between Dandong in China and the city of Sinuiju in northwestern North Korea was closed in April due to the COVID situation in the Chinese city. Read more

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Reporting by Soo-hyang Choi and Joori Roh in Seoul, Ryan Woo in Beijing; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Jack Kim and Gerry Doyle

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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