North Korea confirms first COVID outbreak, Kim orders lockdown

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea imposed a nationwide lockdown on Thursday to contain the first recognized COVID-19 outbreak after more than two years of holding onto a widespread claim of a perfect record to contain the virus. that extends to almost every place in the world.

The outbreak forced leader Kim Jong Un to wear a mask in public, probably the first since the start of the pandemic, but the extent of the broadcasts in North Korea was not immediately known. Failure to slow infections could have serious consequences as the country has a poor health care system and its 26 million people are believed to be largely unvaccinated. Some experts say North Korea may be seeking outside help due to its rare acknowledgment of an outbreak.

The official Korean Central News Agency said tests of samples collected on Sunday from an unspecified number of people with a fever in the capital Pyongyang confirmed they were infected with the omicron variant.

In response, at a meeting of the ruling party’s Politburo, Kim called for a thorough closure of cities and provinces and said workplaces should be isolated by units to prevent the virus from spreading. He urged health professionals to step up disinfection efforts in workplaces and homes and to mobilize reserve medical supplies.

Kim said it was critical to control transmissions and eliminate the source of infection as quickly as possible, while also reducing the inconveniences to the public caused by the virus controls. He insisted that the country will overcome the outbreak because the government and the people are “united as one”.

Despite the heightened virus response, Kim ordered officials to proceed with planned construction, agricultural development and other state projects while bolstering the country’s defense position to avoid a security vacuum.

North Korean state television showed Kim and other senior officials wearing masks as they entered a conference room, although Kim took off his mask to speak into a set of microphones. Still photos distributed by KNCA showed Kim without a mask and sitting at the head of a table where all other officials remained masked.

The South Korean Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, could not immediately confirm whether it was the first time state media Kim had worn a mask since the start of the pandemic. Kim has previously spoken to large crowds without a mask when he praised the country’s past pandemic response, and his decision to be seen wearing a mask may be intended to increase public vigilance.

North Korea, which has enforced strict antivirus controls at its borders for more than two years, did not provide further details about the new lockdown. But an Associated Press photographer on the South Korean side of the border saw dozens of people working in fields or walking on sidewalks in a North Korean border town — an indication that the lockdown won’t require people to stay at home, or work at home. exempts the farm.

The measures described in state media and Kim’s statement that the economic targets still need to be met may indicate that North Korea is focusing more on restricting travel and deliveries between regions, said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang of the Sejong Institute in South Korea.

The government of North Korea has shunned vaccines offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly because they have international monitoring requirements.

The Seoul Ministry of Unification said South Korea is willing to provide medical and other aid to North Korea on humanitarian grounds. Relations between the Koreas have deteriorated since 2019 due to a stalemate in nuclear negotiations and the North’s increasingly provocative weapons tests.

In Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Beijing is providing assistance to North Korea in dealing with the outbreak. North Korea has reportedly rejected previous Chinese offers of domestically developed vaccines.

Kim Sin-gon, a professor at Korea University College of Medicine in Seoul, said North Korea likely indicates its willingness to receive external vaccines, but wants many more doses than COVAX offers to inoculate the entire population multiple times. He said North Korea also wants the shipment of COVID-19 drugs and medical equipment, which are banned by UN sanctions.

Omicron spreads much more easily than previous variants of the coronavirus, and death rates and hospitalizations are high among unvaccinated older people or those with pre-existing health conditions. That means the outbreak could create “a serious situation” because North Korea has no medical equipment and drugs to treat virus patients and many of its people are not well-nourished, Kim Sin-gon said.

Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website that focuses on health issues in North Korea, said North Korea’s admission of the outbreak is likely to push the population harder to protect themselves against the virus, as China, which has a long, porous border with the north, has closed many of its cities over concerns about the virus.

North Korea is also likely to emphasize lockdowns, though China’s “zero-COVID” experience policies suggest that approach won’t work against the fast-moving omicron variant, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

“If Pyongyang is to admit to micron cases in public, the public health situation has to be serious,” Easley said. “This does not mean that North Korea will suddenly be open to humanitarian aid and take a more conciliatory stance toward Washington and Seoul. But the Kim regime’s domestic public may be less interested in nuclear or missile testing when the pressing threat is related to the coronavirus rather than a foreign military.”

North Korea’s previous claim of no coronavirus has been disputed by many foreign experts. But South Korean officials have said North Korea likely avoided a massive outbreak, in part because it put strict virus controls in place almost from the start of the pandemic.

In early 2020 — before the coronavirus spread around the world — North Korea took serious steps to keep the virus at bay, describing it as a matter of “national existence.” It shut down cross-border traffic and trade for nearly two years, and is even believed to have ordered troops to sight-shoot violators crossing the borders.

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

North Korea was one of the last places in the world without a recognized COVID-19 case after the virus was first discovered in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 and spread to every continent, including Antarctica.† Turkmenistanan equally secretive and authoritarian nation in Central Asia, has reported no cases to the World Health Organization, although its claim is also widely questioned by outside experts.

In recent months, some Pacific island states that have kept the virus at bay due to their geographic isolation have registered outbreaks. Only tiny Tuvalu, with a population of about 12,000, has so far escaped the virus, while a few other countries — Nauru, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands — have stopped cases on their borders and avoided community outbreaks.

North Korea’s outbreak comes as China — its closest ally and trading partner — fights its biggest outbreak of the pandemic.

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

Associated Press journalists 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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