North Korea confirms 1st COVID outbreak, Kim orders lockdown

North Korea confirms 1st COVID outbreak, Kim orders lockdown

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Thursday imposed a nationwide lockdown to control its first recognized COVID-19 outbreak after more than two years of clinging to a widely-disputed claim that a perfect record is keeping the virus out, which has spread to almost every place in the world.

The outbreak forced leader Kim Jong Un to wear a mask in public for probably the first time since the pandemic began, but the extent of transmissions within North Korea was not immediately known.

A failure to slow infections could have dire consequences given the country’s poor healthcare system and its 26 million people believed to be mostly unvaccinated. Some experts say North Korea may seek outside help due to its rare admission of an outbreak.

However, hours after North Korea confirmed the outbreak, the South Korean military said it had determined the North had fired three suspected ballistic missiles towards the sea. It was the 16th round of missile launches this year — a reckless move aimed at forcing the United States to accept North Korea as a nuclear power and negotiate sanctions relaxation and other concessions from a position of strength.

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

In response, Kim called for a thorough lockdown of cities and counties at a meeting of the ruling party’s Politburo, saying workplaces should be isolated by units to prevent the virus from spreading. He urged health workers to step up disinfection efforts at workplaces and at home and mobilize medical reserves.

Kim said it is crucial to control transmissions and eliminate the source of infection as soon as possible while reducing the public discomfort caused by virus controls. He insisted the country will overcome the outbreak because its government and people are “united as one”.

Despite the heightened virus response, Kim ordered officials to press ahead with planned construction, agricultural development and other government projects while strengthening the country’s defense posture to avoid a security vacuum.

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North Korea’s state television showed Kim and other senior officials wearing masks as they entered a briefing room, though Kim removed his mask to speak into a bank of microphones. Still images circulated by KNCA showed Kim unmasked and seated at the head of a table where all other officers remained masked.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which deals with inter-Korean affairs, could not immediately confirm whether it was the first time state media had shown Kim wearing a mask since the pandemic began. Kim has previously spoken to large crowds without a mask while praising the country’s past response to a pandemic, and his decision to be seen wearing a mask may be aimed at increasing public vigilance.

North Korea, which has been enforcing strict antivirus controls at its borders for more than two years, gave no further details about its 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 footpaths in a North Korean border town – an indication that the lockdown is not keeping people at home or exempt from farm work are.

The measures, described in state media, and Kim’s statement that economic targets should continue to be met, may indicate North Korea is focusing more on restricting inter-region travel and supplies, said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang of South Korea’s Sejong Institute.

The North Korean government has shunned vaccines offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly because they are subject to international surveillance requirements.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry said South Korea stands ready to provide medical assistance and other assistance to North Korea based on humanitarian considerations. Relations between the Koreas have soured since 2019 amid a stalemate in nuclear negotiations and the North’s increasingly provocative weapons tests.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Beijing is offering help to North Korea to deal with the outbreak. North Korea has reportedly turned down previous Chinese offers for domestically developed vaccines.

Kim Sin-gon, a professor at Korea University College of Medicine in Seoul, said North Korea is likely signaling its willingness to receive external vaccines but wants many more doses than offered by COVAX to vaccinate its entire population multiple times. He said North Korea would also want shipments 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 mortality and hospitalization rates are high in unvaccinated older people or those with existing health conditions. That means the outbreak could cause “a serious situation” as North Korea lacks medical equipment and medicines 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 was likely aimed at urging its people to protect themselves against the virus more than China, which shares a long, porous region border with the north, has put many of its cities on hold over virus concerns.

North Korea also likely to emphasize lockdowns despite China’s ‘zero-COVID’ experience The policy suggests the 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.

“For Pyongyang to publicly admit omicron cases, the public health situation must be serious,” Easley said.

North Korea’s previous claim to freedom from the coronavirus has been disputed by many foreign experts. South Korean officials, however, said North Korea likely avoided a major outbreak, in part because it implemented tight virus controls almost from the start of the pandemic.

In early 2020 – before the coronavirus spread across the world – North Korea took strict steps to keep the virus out, describing them as a matter of “national existence”. It all but halted cross-border traffic and trade for two years and is said to have ordered troops to shoot any intruder crossing its borders on the spot.

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

North Korea was one of the last places in the world without a recognized COVID-19 case after the virus, first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, spread to every continent including Antarctica. Turkmenistana similarly secretive and authoritarian nation in Central Asia, has reported no cases to the World Health Organization, although his claim has been widely disputed, even by outside experts.

In recent months, some Pacific island nations that have kept the virus at bay through their geographical isolation have recorded outbreaks. Only tiny Tuvalu, of around 12,000 people, has escaped the virus so far, while a few other nations – Nauru, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands – have halted cases at their borders and avoided community outbreaks.

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

In January, North Korea tentatively resumed rail freight services between its border city 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.

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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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