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North Korea reports first outbreak of COVID-19, orders shutdown in ‘most severe emergency’

North Korea reports first outbreak of COVID-19, 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 the international offer of the vaccine
  • No North Korean civilians are believed to have been vaccinated

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea on Thursday confirmed the first outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, calling it the “most dangerous national emergency” and ordering a nationwide lockdown, with state media reporting that a type of omicron had been detected in Pyongyang.

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, no cases of COVID-19 have been reported, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and there is no official record of any North Koreans vaccinated.

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

The report 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, without specifying the number of cases or possible sources of infection.

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

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

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State television showed Kim attending the Politburo meeting, wearing a disposable face mask. In earlier shots of such meetings or other events, everyone but him had worn a mask.

North Korea has never officially confirmed a case of the COVID-19 virus, and officials from South Korea and the United States have said the outbreak is in the isolated country. can not be ruled outwhere it had commercial and people-to-people exchanges with China before the border closed in early 2020.

Kim has imposed strict quarantine measures including moves within the province, and in July 2020, he declared a state of emergency and imposed a three-week lockdown on Kaesong, near the inter-Korean border, after a man who defected to the south in 2017 returned to a city showing symptoms of COVID.

World Health Organization Latest dataIt showed that 64,207 of North Korea’s 25 million residents had been tested for COVID-19 and all tests were negative as of March 31.

North Korea has refused vaccine supplies from the COVAX sharing program and the Sinovac Biotech vaccine from China, suggesting that the vast majority of civilians may be unvaccinated. Read more

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 the political situation.

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.

News of the outbreak came after the United States. South Korean officials have 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

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No vaccine, poor medical infrastructure

At the Politburo meeting, Kim said the emergency measures are aimed at curbing the spread of the virus and quickly eliminating the source of its transmission. The agency said the Politburo criticized the “lack of awareness, laxity, irresponsibility and incompetence” of anti-epidemic 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’s leadership.

“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.

The South Korean central bank said in July 2021 that North Korea’s economy suffered its biggest contraction in 23 years in 2020, affected by border controls, UN sanctions and bad weather. Read more

Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute noted that North Korea’s nationwide lockdown is likely to be very disruptive over time, exacerbating food shortages and public confusion.

Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul said Kim’s invitation to the politburo meeting at dawn could be an indirect appeal to the international community for help.

Earlier on Thursday, Chinese state TV reported that North Korea has asked its citizens to stay at home since Tuesday as many of them are suspected of having “flu symptoms”, without mentioning COVID-19.

South Korea’s NK News, which monitors North Korea, said this week that Pyongyang residents have been asked to stay at home due to a “national problem”, without details.

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The main crossing between China’s Dandong and the northwestern North Korean city of Sinuiju was closed in April due to the COVID case in the Chinese city. Read more

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(Reporting by Su Hyang Choi and Juri Roh in Seoul and Ryan Woo in Beijing; Additional reporting by Hyunhye Shin. Editing by Jack Kim and Jerry Doyle

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.