SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea confirmed its first COVID-19 outbreak on Thursday, May 12, calling it the “gravest national emergency” and ordering a national lockdown, with state media reporting an Omicron variant had been detected in Pyongyang.
The first public admission of COVID-19 infections highlights the potential for a major crisis in a country that has refused international help with vaccinations and kept its borders shut.
According to the World Health Organization, no instances of COVID-19 have been documented as of March, and there is no public record of any North Koreans having been vaccinated.
“The state’s most critical emergency occurred: a break was created on our emergency epidemic prevention front, which has resolutely guarded for two years and three months from February 2020,” according to the official KCNA news agency.
A sub-variant of the Omicron virus, also known as BA.2, was found in samples obtained on May 8 from patients in Pyongyang who were having fevers, according to the study, which did not provide specifics on case numbers or suspected sources of infection.
The report was released during a Workers’ Party conference headed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Thursday to consider solutions to the outbreak.
Kim ordered all cities and counties of the country to “strictly lock down” their regions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and said emergency reserve medical supplies would be mobilized, according to KCNA.
“The state epidemic prevention work shall be switched over to the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system,” KCNA said.
Although the North has never before confirmed a single coronavirus infection in the country, officials in South Korea and the United States have doubted that the country is COVID-free, as cases of the Omicron variant were widely reported in neighboring South Korea and China.
The isolated North has enforced strict quarantine measures, including border lockdowns since the pandemic began in early 2020. In July that year, Kim declared an emergency and imposed a lockdown on Kaesong, near the inter-Korean border, for three weeks after a man who defected to the South in 2017 returned to the city showing coronavirus symptoms.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 64,207 of North Korea’s 24.7 million people were tested for COVID-19, with all of them proving negative as of March 31.
North Korea has turned down vaccine supplies from the COVAX global COVID-19 vaccine-sharing program and China’s Sinovac Biotech vaccine, implying that no people have been inoculated.
President Yoon Suk-yeol, who was sworn in on May 10, told Reuters that he will not link humanitarian help to the political situation, leaving the door open to sending support to the North.
The news of the outbreak comes amid reports of preparations for an imminent nuclear test by the North, which has also aggressively pursued a ballistic missile program, according to U.S. and South Korean officials.
No Vaccine, No Medical Infrastructure
According to a KCNA report from Thursday, Kim told a Workers’ Party meeting that the latest emergency quarantine system’s goal is to normalize and manage the spread of the coronavirus while also quickly healing infected people to eliminate the source of transmission in the shortest time possible.
A failure to contain infections could be an “unprecedented crisis for the Kim Jong Un regime,” a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in South Korea, Lim Eul-Chul, said.
“Given a more inferior vaccination situation and weaker testing capacity and public health infrastructure compared to China, plus the lack of intensive care units, there’s potential for scores of casualties,” he said.
Lockdown across the country has the potential to be extremely disruptive.
“North Korea is going to confront serious food shortages and, like China, tremendous chaos in the future,” he warned.
In an annual report released in July 2021, South Korea’s central bank stated that the North’s economy contracted at its fastest rate in 23 years in 2020, owing to COVID-19 border controls, UN sanctions, and harsh weather.
The fact that Kim held a party politburo meeting at daybreak and state media quickly broadcast the proceedings, according to Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, demonstrates the severity of the issue. He noted that it may be an indirect plea for assistance to the world community.
A South Korea-based website that monitors activities in Pyongyang said this week that residents have been told to return home and remain indoors because of a “national problem” without offering details.
Earlier on Thursday, Chinese state television reported North Korea has required its people to stay at home since May 11 as many of them have “suspected flu symptoms”, without referring to COVID-19.
The main crossing between China’s Dandong and the north-western North Korean town of Sinuiju was closed in April because of the COVID-19 situation in the Chinese city, China said.