North Korean authorities have imposed a lockdown on the border city of Kaesong after discovering what they say is the country’s first suspected COVID-19 case, state media reported yesterday.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un convened an emergency politburo meeting on Saturday to implement a “maximum emergency system and issue a top-class alert” to contain the virus, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.
If confirmed, it would be the first officially recognized case of COVID-19 in North Korea, where medical infrastructure is seen as woefully inadequate to deal with any epidemic.
KCNA said a defector who had left for South Korea three years ago returned on July 19 after “illegally crossing” the heavily fortified border dividing the two countries.
It is very rare for anyone to leave South Korea through what is one of the world’s most secure borders, replete with minefields and guard posts.
The South Korean military said there was a “high possibility” that a defector had returned.
A 24-year-old man is believed to have swum back to the North after being investigated over rape allegations in South Korea, according to multiple media reports and defectors.
Pyongyang previously insisted that not a single case of COVID-19 had been seen in North Korea, despite the pandemic sweeping the globe, and the country’s borders remain closed.
The patient was found in Kaesong, which borders South Korea, and “was put under strict quarantine,” as would any close contacts, KCNA said.
It was a “dangerous situation ... that may lead to a deadly and destructive disaster,” the agency added.
Kim was quoted as saying that “the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country,” and officials on Friday took the “preemptive measure of totally blocking Kaesong.”
North Korea closed its borders in late January as the virus spread in China.
It imposed tough restrictions that put thousands of people into isolation, but analysts have said the country is unlikely to have avoided the contagion.
China and North Korea share a 1,400km border that is especially porous during the winter, when frozen rivers allow people to cross more easily in and out of the countries.
Dozens of North Koreans daily cross the border to smuggle black market goods, and analysts have said they might have carried the virus into the country before the frontier was closed.
“There’s no question the coronavirus in the North is imported from China,” Asan Institute for Policy Studies analyst Go Myong-hyun said, pointing to the heavy border traffic and China’s high total number of cases.
Pyongyang was singling out the case from South Korea to highlight defectors as “dangerous beings,” Go said, as North Korea ramps up pressure against Seoul.
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