North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered nationwide “lockdown measures” on Thursday after the country discovered its first case of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to state media.
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Mr. Kim “urged all cities and counties in the country to carefully delimit their territories and organize labor and production after isolating each work unit, each production unit and each housing unit from each other to block the spread of the ‘malicious virus.’ said the official KCNA news agency.
After two years of fighting the pandemic, samples from fever patients in Pyongyang “match the Omicron BA.2 variant,” official KCNA news agency reported.
“For Pyongyang to publicly admit cases of omicron, the public health situation must be serious,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
Seoul-based NK News, citing sources in Pyongyang, reported that neighborhoods in the North Korean capital had been locked down for two days and also reported hoarding.
Experts say the country’s flawed health system would struggle to cope with a larger outbreak, especially since North Korea failed to vaccinate one of its 25 million residents after offers of vaccinations were rejected by the WHO, China and Russia.
Acceptance of vaccines through the WHO’s Covax program requires “transparency about how vaccines are distributed,” Go Myong-hyun, a researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, told AFP. That’s why North Korea rejected it.”
North Korea has long boasted of its ability to keep the virus in check and has not reported a single confirmed case of COVID-19 to the World Health Organization.
According to the institution, North Korea had conducted 13,259 anti-COVID tests in 2020, all of which came back negative.
During a military parade in 2020, Kim Jong Un thanked citizens and soldiers for their loyalty and for staying healthy in the face of the global pandemic. State media had previously spoken of “epidemic prevention” measures, and official photos sometimes showed civilians wearing masks.
But during the massive military parade in Pyongyang in late April, broadcast by state media, none of the thousands in attendance were seen wearing masks.
Nuclear test delayed?
North Korea is surrounded by countries that have been striving, or are still striving, to eradicate significant herds of omicron.
South Korea, where vaccination rates are high, recently eased almost all health restrictions as cases fell sharply after an outbreak in March.
Neighboring China, the world’s only major economy with a zero-COVID policy, has been grappling with multiple Omicron outbreaks and has locked down several major cities, including financial capital Shanghai.
Analysts say North Korea’s health crisis could disrupt the country’s weapons testing.
Pyongyang has conducted more than a dozen weapons tests this year, including a long-range ICBM for the first time since 2017.
Satellite images show North Korea preparing to conduct a nuclear test, and the United States has warned it could happen as early as this month.
“It is possible that the nuclear test will be postponed to focus on containing the coronavirus,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korea Studies in Seoul, told AFP.
But he added that if people’s fear of an outbreak spreads, Kim Jong Un could conduct a process “to deflect that fear.”