North Korea confirms first spread of COVID, Kim orders lockdown

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korea imposed a nationwide lockdown Thursday to control its first acknowledged outbreak of COVID-19 after holding out for more than two years a widely questionable claim about a perfect record keeping the virus that has spread around the world. Approximately. place in the world.

The outbreak forced leader Kim Jong-un to wear a mask in public, likely for the first time since the pandemic began, but the scale of transmission within North Korea was not immediately known. Failure to slow the infection could have dire consequences because the country has a poor health care system and its population of 26 million is believed to be mostly unvaccinated. Some experts say North Korea, by its rare acknowledgment of the outbreak, may be seeking outside help.

The official Korean Central News Agency said tests of samples collected on Sunday from an unspecified number of people with a fever in the capital, Pyongyang, were infected with the omicron variant.

In response, Kim at the ruling party’s Politburo meeting called for a comprehensive shutdown of cities and counties, and said workplaces should be isolated by units to prevent the spread of the virus. He urged health workers to intensify disinfection efforts in workplaces and homes and mobilize backup medical supplies.

Kim said it was necessary to control transmission and eliminate the source of infection as quickly as possible, while easing the inconveniences caused by virus controls to the public. He insists the country will beat the outbreak because its government and people are “united”.

Despite the heightened response to the virus, Kim ordered officials to move forward with scheduled construction, agricultural development and other government projects while bolstering the country’s defensive posture to avoid any security vacuum.

North Korean state television showed Kim and other senior officials wearing masks as they entered the meeting room, although Kim took off his mask to speak into a range of microphones. Still images distributed by the German news agency KNCA showed Kim unmasked and sitting at the head of a table where all other officials remained masked.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, could not immediately confirm whether this was the first time state media had shown Kim wearing a mask since the start of the pandemic. Kim previously spoke to huge crowds without a mask as he praised the country’s previous response to the pandemic, and his decision to appear with a mask may be to increase public vigilance.

North Korea, which has imposed strict anti-virus controls on its borders for more than two years, did not provide 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 does not require people to stay home, or exclude agricultural work.

The measures described in state media and Kim’s announcement that economic goals remain to be achieved could indicate that North Korea is focusing more on restricting travel and supplies between regions, analyst Cheong Seong Chang at South Korea’s Sejong Institute said.

The North Korean government has avoided vaccines provided by the UN-backed COVAX distribution programme, possibly because it has international monitoring requirements.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry said South Korea is ready to provide medical and other aid to North Korea based on humanitarian considerations. Inter-Korean relations have deteriorated since 2019 amid a stalemate in nuclear negotiations and North Korea’s increased testing of provocative weapons.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Beijing is providing assistance to North Korea in dealing with the outbreak. North Korea has reportedly rejected previous Chinese offers of home-grown vaccines.

North Korea is likely signaling that it wants to receive external vaccines, but wants much more doses than those provided by COVAX to vaccinate its entire population many times over, said Kim Sein-joon, a professor at Korea University School of Medicine in Seoul. He said North Korea also wants shipments of medicine and medical equipment for the COVID-19 virus, which are banned under UN sanctions.

Omicron spreads more easily than previous types of coronavirus, and mortality and hospitalization rates are high among unvaccinated elderly people or those with existing health problems. Kim Sin-joon said this means that the outbreak could cause a “dangerous situation” because North Korea lacks medical equipment and medicine to treat virus patients and many of its residents are not well-nourished.

Ahn Kyung-soo, president of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website focused on health issues in North Korea, said North Korea’s acceptance of the outbreak is likely designed to put more pressure on its people to prevent the virus, as China, which shares a period of long, porous; Bordering with the north, many of its cities have been placed under lockdown due to virus fears.

North Korea also likely to tighten lockdowns, despite China experiencing ‘zero COVID’ Leif Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Iowa Women’s University in Seoul, said the policy indicates that the approach does not work against a fast-moving omicron variant.

“For Pyongyang to publicly acknowledge cases of oomicron, the public health situation must be grave,” Easley said. This does not mean that North Korea will suddenly become open to humanitarian aid and take a more conciliatory line toward Washington and Seoul. But the Kim regime’s domestic audience may be less interested in nuclear or missile tests when it comes to the urgent threat of the coronavirus than a foreign military.”

Many foreign experts have questioned North Korea’s earlier claim that it is free of the coronavirus. But South Korean officials said North Korea likely avoided a large-scale outbreak, in part because it has put in place strict virus controls almost from the start of the epidemic.

In early 2020 – before the coronavirus spread around the world – North Korea took drastic steps to keep the virus out and described it as a matter of “national presence”. All of this has halted cross-border traffic and trade for two years, and is believed to have ordered troops to immediately shoot any intruders who crossed its border.

The extreme border closures have also shocked an economy already battered by decades of mismanagement and US-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile programme, sending Kim into perhaps the most difficult moment in his rule since taking power in 2011.

North Korea was one of the last places in the world without a recognized case of COVID-19 after the virus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 to every continent including Antarctica.. TurkmenistanThe World Health Organization, a secretive and similarly authoritarian state in Central Asia, has not reported any cases of infection, although it was widely suspected by outside experts.

In recent months, some Pacific Island nations that have kept the virus out of their geographic isolation have also recorded outbreaks. Only small Tuvalu, with a population of about 12,000, has escaped the virus so far, while a few other countries – Nauru, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands – have halted cases at their borders and averted community outbreaks.

The outbreak in North Korea comes as China – its close ally and trading partner – is battling the largest outbreak of the epidemic.

In January, North Korea temporarily reopened rail freight traffic between its border town 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.


Associated Press reporters 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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