North Korea yesterday imposed a nationwide lockdown to control its first acknowledged COVID-19 outbreak after saying for more than two years that it had a perfect record keeping out the virus that has spread to nearly every place in the world.
The size of the outbreak was not immediately known, but it could have serious consequences, because the country has a poor healthcare system and its 26 million people are believed to be mostly unvaccinated against COVID-19.
Some experts say that the North, by its admission of an outbreak, might be seeking outside aid.
The North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said that tests of samples collected on Sunday from an unspecified number of people with fevers in the capital, Pyongyang, confirmed they were infected with the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2.
In response, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during called for a thorough lockdown of cities and counties, and said that workplaces should be isolated by units to block the virus from spreading, KCNA said.
Kim urged health workers to step up disinfection efforts at workplaces and homes, and mobilize reserve medical supplies.
It was crucial to stabilize transmissions and eliminate the infection source as fast as possible, while also easing the inconveniences to the public caused by the virus controls, he said.
The country would surely overcome what he described as an unexpected outbreak, because its government and people are “united as one.”
North Korea, which continues to employ one of the world’s most restrictive border controls, did not provide further details about its lockdown.
A photographer on the South Korean side of the border saw dozens of people working in farm fields or walking on footpaths at a North Korean border town — an indication that the lockdown does not require people to stay home, or it exempts farm work.
The measures described in state media and Kim’s declaration that economic goals should be met possibly indicate that North Korea is not strictly confining people to their homes, and is focusing more on restricting travel and supplies between regions to slow the viral spread, analyst Cheong Seong-chang at South Korea’s Sejong Institute said.
The North’s government has shunned vaccines offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly because those have international monitoring requirements.
The South Korean Ministry of Unification, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said that Seoul is willing to provide medical assistance and other help to the North based on humanitarian considerations.
Relations between the Koreas have deteriorated since 2019 amid a stalemate in nuclear negotiations and the North’s increasingly provocative weapons demonstrations.
Kim Sin-gon, a professor at Seoul’s Korea University College of Medicine, said North Korea likely is signaling its willingness to receive outside vaccines shipments, but wants many more doses than offered by COVAX to inoculate its entire population multiple times.
North Korea would also want COVID-19 medicines as well as medical equipment shipments that are banned by UN sanctions, he said.
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