North Korea reports first outbreak of COVID, orders shutdown in ‘most severe emergency’

  • North Korea declares ‘most dangerous national emergency’
  • The possibility of an “unprecedented crisis” for Kim Jong-un – expert
  • The isolated country rejected vaccine offers
  • No North Korean civilians are believed to have been vaccinated

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea reported the first outbreak of the COVID-19 virus on Thursday, calling it the “most dangerous national emergency” and ordering a nationwide lockdown, and state media said a different version of Omicron was detected in the capital, Pyongyang.

North Korea had never confirmed a coronavirus infection before Thursday although South Korean and US officials said there may have been previous cases in the isolated country, given its trade and travel with China before it closed its borders to prevent the virus in early 2020.

The state’s official Korean Central News Agency said, “The most serious emergency has occurred in the state: a break appeared in our emergency epidemic prevention front, which has been firmly defended so far.”

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The first public acceptance of infection with the Coronavirus highlights the potential for a major crisis in a country that lacks medical resources, has refused international assistance with vaccinations and has kept its borders closed.

As of March, only no cases of COVID have been reported, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), but there has been no official record of any North Koreans being vaccinated.

The Korean Central News Agency said samples taken on May 8 from people in Pyongyang who had a fever showed a subtype of Omicron virus, also known as BA.2. It did not mention the number of cases and did not mention the source.

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Earlier on Thursday, Chinese state TV reported that North Korea has imposed a stay-at-home order since Tuesday citing “suspected flu symptoms” among some people.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held a meeting of the powerful Politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party, ordering a nationwide “strict lockdown” and mobilization of emergency medical supply reserves.

“The state’s epidemic prevention work should be transferred to the epidemic prevention system in extreme emergency situations,” the agency said.

State television showed Kim wearing a mask when he arrived for the meeting, before taking it off as he began. All attendees wore masks.

In earlier footage of such encounters, everyone but him wore a mask. There was no indication of masks in the photos of the last major military parade.

No vaccine, scarce resources

For more than two years, Kim has imposed tight restrictions to stem COVID including a travel ban between provinces. In July 2020, he declared a state of emergency and imposed a three-week lockdown on the town of Kaesong, near the inter-Korean border, after a man who defected to the south in 2017 returned to the city showing symptoms of COVID.

According to the latest WHO dataAs of the end of March, 64,207 of North Korea’s 25 million residents had been tested, and all had tested negative.

North Korea has rejected vaccine supplies from the COVAX sharing program and the Sinovac Biotech vaccine from China, which could leave the vast majority of people in a relatively small country at a higher risk of infection. Read more

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The office of the new South Korean president, Yoon Seok-yeol, who was sworn in on Tuesday, said it would not link humanitarian aid to political differences with North Korea.

Kwon Young-se, Yoon’s nominee for unification minister in charge of inter-Korean relations, told his confirmation hearing that he would prepare humanitarian assistance for North Korea, including COVID treatment, injections and other medical supplies.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said it was ready to make “all-out efforts” to help North Korea fight the outbreak.

The border with China reopened for trade early this year, but China said the main crossing between the city of Dandong and the North Korean city of Sinuiju was closed in April due to the coronavirus case on the Chinese side. Read more

News of the outbreak came after US and South Korean officials warned that North Korea may conduct its first nuclear test since 2017 as early as this month, after breaching a 2017 moratorium on long-range missile tests. Read more

Kim told the Politburo that the emergency measures are aimed at curbing the virus and eliminating the source of its transmission. The agency said the Politburo had criticized “laxity, irresponsibility and incompetence” on the part of anti-virus officials.

Lim Yeol-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in South Korea, said failure to contain the infection could be an “unprecedented crisis” for Kim.

“Given the lower vaccination status, testing capacity and public health infrastructure compared to China, as well as the lack of intensive care units, there is a potential for dozens of casualties,” he said.

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

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Additional reporting by Su Hyang Choi and Juri Roh in Seoul, Ryan Wu and Yu Lun Tian in Beijing; Reporting and additional writing by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Jack Kim, Jerry Doyle, Robert Percell

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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