North Korea has confirmed its first Covid-19 case and declared a “severe national emergency”, state media said on Thursday, with leader Kim Jong Un vowing to “eliminate” the virus.
The impoverished nuclear-armed country has never admitted a case of Covid-19 since the pandemic began in 2020, and the government has imposed a strict coronavirus lockdown on its borders.
But samples taken from fever patients in the capital were “consistent” with the highly circulating Omicron variant of the virus, according to the official KCNA news agency.
Senior officials, including leader Kim Jong Un, convened a crisis Politburo meeting to discuss the outbreak and announced they would implement a “maximally urgent” virus control system.
“The goal is to eliminate the roots in the shortest possible time,” Kim told the meeting, according to KCNA.
“He assured us that due to the high political awareness of the people…we will definitely overcome the emergency and win the emergency quarantine project,” it said.
King called for stronger border controls and lockdowns, telling citizens to “completely stop the spread of the malicious virus by completely sealing off areas in all cities and counties across the country.”
KCNA added that all business and production activities will be organized so that each work unit is “quarantined” to prevent the spread of the disease.
– No vaccine –
Experts believe North Korea has rejected vaccination proposals from the World Health Organization, China and Russia, and has refused to vaccinate any of its 25 million people.
North Korea’s crumbling health system will struggle to cope with a massive virus outbreak, experts say.
Countries around North Korea have fought or are still fighting to control a major outbreak of Omicron.
South Korea, which has high vaccination rates, recently eased nearly all Covid-19 restrictions, with cases falling sharply after a surge driven by Omicron in March.
Neighboring China, the only major economy in the world still maintaining a zero Covid-19 policy, is battling multiple Omicron outbreaks.
Major Chinese cities, including the financial capital Shanghai, have been under strict lockdown for weeks.
– Blocked? –
Seoul-based professional website NK News reported that the Pyongyang area had been blocked for two days.
“Multiple sources have also heard reports of panic buying due to uncertainty about when the lockdown will end,” the website quoted a Pyongyang source as saying.
North Korea has long touted its ability to contain the virus.
At the 2020 military parade, Kim Jong-un repeatedly and enthusiastically thanked citizens and the military for their loyalty and staying healthy in the face of the global coronavirus pandemic.
The World Health Organization said from January 3, 2020 to May 11 this year, there were zero confirmed cases of Covid-19 and zero reported deaths in North Korea.
State media have previously reported on “anti-epidemic” measures, with civilians sometimes seen wearing masks in official photos.
But at the massive military parade in Pyongyang by state media late last month, none of the thousands of attendees or participants wore masks.
Analysts say North Korea’s health crisis could disrupt the country’s banned weapons launches.
Pyongyang has conducted more than a dozen weapons tests so far this year, including the first full-range launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017.
Satellite imagery shows North Korea is preparing for a nuclear test that the United States has warned could take place as soon as this month.
“It is possible to delay the nuclear test to focus on defeating the coronavirus,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korea Studies, told AFP.
But he said that if public fears of an outbreak spread, King could go ahead with testing, “moving that fear to another place.”