Pyongyang was very proud to have officially escaped Covid-19 so far. But the first case of infection since the start of the pandemic was reported in North Korea on Thursday, May 12, by the official state agency KCNA, calling it a “serious national emergency”.
This first contamination, detected during tests carried out on Sunday in Pyongyang on sick and feverish people, “corresponds” to the highly transmissible Omicron variant, the agency said.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called at a political bureau crisis meeting to take preventive measures against Covid-19 to the maximum level with the establishment of a virus control system of “extreme urgency”.
“The goal is to eliminate the root as soon as possible,” said the leader quoted by the agency. “He assured us that due to the strong political consciousness of the people…we will surely overcome the emergency and succeed with the emergency quarantine project,” the news agency said.
Kim Jong-un called for stricter border control and containment measures, calling on residents to “completely prevent the spread of the malicious virus by completely locking down their neighborhoods in all cities and counties across the country,” according to KCNA. All productive and commercial activities will be organized so that each work unit is “isolated” to prevent the spread of the virus, he added.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), North Korea, which has a population of some 26 million, conducted 13,259 Covid-19 tests in 2020, all of which came back negative. A first case of Covid-19 in North Korea was suspected in July 2020 – a fugitive who passed through South Korea before returning to the North – without being confirmed.
Many foreign experts doubt the veracity of the official figures. But South Korean officials said North Korea likely avoided a huge outbreak, in part because it instituted strict virus controls almost from the start of the pandemic, such as quarantining people with symptoms resembling Covid-19.
Pyongyang had also virtually halted cross-border traffic and trade for two years, and reportedly even ordered troops to shoot on sight any intruders crossing its borders.
Covax vaccination program refused by Pyongyang
Rail freight traffic between the border town of Sinuiju and China’s Dandong was partially reopened last January, but China announced a halt to trade last month as it faced a spread of Covid-19 in Dandong.
North Korea was one of the last places in the world without an officially recognized case of the virus. Turkmenistan, an equally closed and authoritarian nation in Central Asia, has not reported any cases to the WHO, although its claim is widely doubted by experts.
So far, North Korea has avoided vaccines offered by the United Nations (UN)-backed Covax distribution program which imposes international surveillance measures.
Observers say the country’s badly flawed health system would have struggled to weather a massive outbreak which, combined with other problems like severe food shortages and an economy already atrophied by decades of mismanagement and sanctions dictated by the United States, could trigger great instability within the country.