North Korea confirms first COVID outbreak, Kim orders lockdown

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea imposed a nationwide lockdown Thursday to control its first recognized COVID-19 outbreak after holding out for more than two years on a widely questioned claim of a perfect folder to prevent the virus which has spread to almost every place in the world.

The size of the outbreak was not immediately known, but it could have serious consequences as the country has a poor healthcare system and its 26 million people are believed to be mostly unvaccinated. Some experts say the North, with its rare admission of an outbreak, may seek outside help.

Korea’s official Central News Agency said tests of samples taken on Sunday from an unknown number of people with fever in the capital, Pyongyang, confirmed they were infected with the omicron variant.

In response, leader Kim Jong Un called for a complete lockdown of cities and counties and said workplaces should be isolated by units to prevent the spread of the virus, KCNA said.

At a ruling party Politburo meeting, Kim called on officials to stabilize transmissions and eliminate the source of infection as quickly as possible, while mitigating public inconvenience caused by virus checks. Kim said “resolute public unity is the strongest guarantee that can win in this fight against the pandemic,” KCNA said.

North Korea did not provide further details on its lockdown. But an Associated Press photographer on the South Korean side of the border saw dozens of people working in agricultural fields or walking on paths in a North Korean border town – an indication that the lockdown does not force people people to stay at home or to exempt agricultural work.

The northern government has shunned vaccines offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly because these have international monitoring requirements.

Kim Sin-gon, a professor at the Korea University College of Medicine in Seoul, said North Korea was likely signaling a willingness to receive outside vaccine shipments, but wanted many more doses than those offered by COVAX to inoculate the whole. of its population many times over. He said North Korea would also want COVID-19 drugs as well as shipments of medical equipment banned by UN sanctions.

The omicron variant spreads much more easily than earlier variants of the virus, and its death and hospitalization rates are high among unvaccinated older people or those with existing health conditions. That means the outbreak could cause “a serious situation” as North Korea lacks medical equipment and medicine to treat patients infected with the virus and many of its people are not well fed, Kim Sin- said. go.

Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website focused on health issues in North Korea, said North Korea may want an international shipment of COVID-19 treatment pills. But he said the North’s admission of the outbreak is also likely designed to further incentivize its people to guard against the virus, as China, which shares a long porous border with the North, has placed many cities under control due to virus issues.

Despite the high virus response, Kim ordered officials to press ahead with planned construction, agricultural development and other state projects while strengthening the country’s defense postures to avoid a security vacuum.

North likely to double down on lockdowns even if China’s ‘zero-COVID’ approach fails suggests that this approach does not work against the rapidly evolving omicron variant, said Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

“For Pyongyang to publicly admit omicron cases, the public health situation must be serious,” Easley said. “That doesn’t mean North Korea will suddenly open up to humanitarian aid and take a more conciliatory line toward Washington and Seoul. But the Kim regime’s domestic audience may be less interested in nuclear or missile testing. when the urgent threat involves coronavirus rather than a foreign military.

North Korea’s previous coronavirus-free claim had been disputed by many foreign experts. But South Korean officials said North Korea likely avoided a huge outbreak, in part because it instituted strict virus controls almost from the start of the pandemic.

In early 2020 – before the coronavirus spread around the world – North Korea took tough measures to keep the virus out and described them as a matter of “national existence”. It quarantined people with symptoms resembling COVID-19, virtually halted cross-border traffic and trade for two years, and reportedly even ordered troops to shoot on sight any intruders crossing its borders.

The extreme border closures have further shocked an economy already damaged by decades of US mismanagement and sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile program, pushing Kim into perhaps the most difficult moment of his rule since he took power in 2011.

North Korea was one of the last places in the world without a recognized COVID-19 case after the virus first detected in China’s central city of Wuhan in late 2019 spread to every continent, including Antarctica.. Turkmenistanan equally secretive and authoritarian nation in Central Asia, has not reported any cases to the World Health Organization, although its claim is also widely doubted by outside experts.

In recent months, some Pacific island nations that kept the virus out through their geographic isolation have recorded outbreaks. So far only tiny Tuvalu, with a population of around 12,000, has escaped the virus, while a few other countries – Nauru, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands – have halted cases at their borders and avoided outbreaks. community epidemics.

North Korea’s outbreak comes as China – its close ally and trading partner – battles its biggest outbreak of the pandemic.

In January, North Korea tentatively reopened rail freight traffic between its border city of Sinuiju and China’s Dandong for the first time in two years, but China halted trade last month due to an outbreak in China. Liaoning Province, which borders North Korea.

Most of Dandong city in Liaoning has been under lockdown since late April, and in another city, Yingkou, 78 new cases were found on Wednesday. Another border province, Jilin, had a major outbreak earlier with tens of thousands of cases, but that has largely receded.

Outbreaks in northeast China have been overshadowed by the huge epidemic that has locked down Shanghai for weeks, as well as a small outbreak in Beijing that has prompted a series of pandemic-related restrictions in the nation’s capital.

It is unusual for North Korea to admit the outbreak of an infectious disease, although Kim has sometimes been candid about national and social issues and political failures.

During a flu pandemic in 2009, when the country was ruled by his father, Kim Jong Il, North Korea said nine people in Pyongyang and the northwestern border town of Sinuiju contracted the flu. Some outside experts said at the time that the admission was aimed at getting outside help.

Experts say Kim Jong Un has yet to publicly ask for help, including COVID-19 vaccines, from the United States and South Korea amid the protracted stalemate in nuclear diplomacy.

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Associated Press reporters Lee Jin-man in Paju, South Korea, Ken Moritsugu in Beijing and Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand, contributed to this report.

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