Experts warn that North Korea is at risk of becoming the epicenter of new variants due to the population’s low immunity to the virus.
As the world reopens, North Korea is one of two countries without a vaccine
To date, North Korea has maintained that there have been no positive cases, although many experts have questioned the veracity of this claim. However, the announcement suggests that the circumstances surrounding this outbreak warranted a public admission.
North Korean state media said tests were carried out on a group of people from an unidentified organization in Pyongyang on Sunday who were showing fever symptoms. The results subsequently showed that they were infected with the BA.2 subvariant.
North Korea was already under a strict pandemic lockdown that banned tourists, diplomats, aid workers and most land trade with China. On Thursday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un tightened border controls and ordered all cities and counties to be locked down. State media called the outbreak “the most serious national emergency”.
NKNews, a Seoul-based website focused on North Korea surveillance, had reported this week that people in Pyongyang were ordered into lockdown after warnings of a “national issue.” Individuals told the outlet there was panic buying and shortages in supplies as residents feared a prolonged lockdown in the capital.
In recent weeks, North Korean state media have repeatedly warned against taking greater precautions due to outbreaks along the border with China, urging the public to “step up anti-epidemic work in preparation for the ongoing emergency.”
The Politburo blamed the epidemic sector’s “negligence, carelessness, irresponsibility and incompetence” for the outbreak, according to state media. Although Kim has occasionally spoken openly about his regime’s failures and problems, such as admitting to the country’s “food crisis,” it is noteworthy that North Korea has admitted to failings in its anti-virus measures.
On Thursday, Kim warned of further omissions and called for greater vigilance along the border with China. He said the North Korean public has already weathered a “protracted emergency antivirus battle” and will emerge from the crisis.
“What is more dangerous to us than the virus is unscientific fear, lack of confidence and lack of willpower,” Kim said, according to state media.
Surviving the “Time Machine”: Helping North Korean defectors to the South
Go Myong-hyun, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies in Seoul, said while this is likely not North Korea’s first coronavirus case, it may be an opportunity for Kim to highlight his efforts to fight the virus — especially given the reports already circulating about the Pyongyang lockdown.
“I think the main reason why the regime is officially acknowledging the existence of Covid in the country is that it happened in Pyongyang and the regime knows that the world would find out about it sooner or later,” Go said. “It’s probably more about demonstrating control than screaming for help.”
Pyongyang has repeatedly turned down offers of millions of doses from a United Nations-backed global vaccination drive. The strict sealing off of North Korea’s borders, allowing only minimal trade with China, has exacerbated the country’s food crisis, according to the United Nations.
Kee Park, a global health expert at Harvard Medical School who has worked on health projects in North Korea, called on the international community to help North Korea respond to the breach, including with offers of mRNA vaccines and therapeutics.
“They would need to consider additional measures to protect their populations, including nationwide immunization programs,” Park said. “It is in everyone’s interest to help North Korea respond to the breach. Nobody wants a different variant.”