N.Korea reports first COVID-19 outbreak, orders lockdown in “gravest emergency”

N.Korea reports first COVID-19 outbreak, orders lockdown in "gravest emergency"
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  • North Korea declares ‘gravest national emergency’
  • Potential for ‘unprecedented crisis’ for Kim Jong Un – expert
  • Isolated state has declined int’l offer of vaccine
  • No North Korean civilians are believed vaccinated

SEOUL, May 12 (Reuters) – North Korea confirmed its first COVID-19 outbreak on Thursday, calling it the “gravest national emergency” and ordering a national lockdown, with state media reporting an Omicron variant had been detected in Pyongyang.

The first public admission of COVID infections highlights the potential for a major crisis in a country that lacks medical resources and has refused international help with vaccinations and kept its borders shut.

As of March, no cases of COVID-19 have been reported, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and there is no official record of any North Koreans having been vaccinated.

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“The state’s most serious emergency has occurred: A break was made on our emergency epidemic prevention front that had been firmly defended until now,” official KCNA news agency said.

Samples taken on May 8 from people in Pyongyang who were experiencing fevers showed a sub-variant of the Omicron virus, also known as BA.2, the report said, without specifying case numbers or possible sources of infection.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to a meeting on Thursday of the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful politburo, ordering a “strict lockdown” nationwide and the mobilization of emergency reserve medical supplies.

“The state epidemic prevention work shall be switched over to the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system,” KCNA said.

State television showed Kim attending the politburo meeting wearing a disposable facial mask. In past footage of such meetings or other events, everyone but him wore a mask.

North Korea had never formally confirmed a COVID-19 infection, South Korea and US officials have said an outbreak in the isolated country cannot be ruled outas it had trade and people-to-people exchanges with China before sealing the border in early 2020.

Kim has enforced strict quarantine measures including intra-province movements, and in July 2020, declared an emergency and imposed a three-week lockdown on Kaesong, near the inter-Korean border, after a man who defected to the South in 2017 returned to the city ​​showing COVID symptoms.

The WHO’s latest datashowed 64,207 of North Korea’s 25 million people have received COVID-19 testing and all tested negative as of March 31.

North Korea had declined vaccine supplies from the COVAX sharing program and the Sinovac Biotech vaccine from China, suggesting the vast majority of civilians may be unvaccinated. read more

The office of South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, who was sworn in on Tuesday, said it would not link humanitarian aid to the political situation.

Kwon Young-se, Yoon’s nominee for unification minister responsible for inter-Korean ties, told his confirmation hearing that he would prepare humanitarian assistance for the North, including COVID treatment, syringes and other medical supplies.

The news of the outbreak came after U.S. and South Korean officials warned the North could conduct its first nuclear test since 2017 as early as this month, after breaking a 2017 moratorium on long-range missile testing. read more

DO NOT VACCINE, POOR MEDICAL INFRASTRUCTURE

At the politburo meeting, Kim said the emergency measures are aimed at curbing the virus’ spread and rapidly eliminating the source of transmission. The politburo criticized anti-epidemic officials’ “lack of awareness, slackness, irresponsibility and incompetence,” KCNA said.

A failure to contain infections could be an “unprecedented crisis” for Kim’s leadership, said Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in South Korea.

“Given a more inferior vaccination situation and testing capacity and public health infrastructure compared to China, plus the lack of intensive care units, there’s potential for scores of casualties,” he said.

South Korea’s central bank said in July 2021 the North’s economy had suffered its biggest contraction in 23 years in 2020, weighed down by border controls, UN sanctions and bad weather. read more

Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute noted that North Korea’s nationwide lockdown is likely to be immensely disruptive over time, deepening food shortages and public confusion.

Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul said Kim’s calling of the politburo meeting at dawn could be an indirect plea to the international community for help.

Earlier on Thursday, Chinese state television reported North Korea has required its people to stay at home since Tuesday as many have “suspected flu symptoms”, without referring to COVID-19.

NK News, a South Korea-based website monitoring North Korea also said this week that Pyongyang residents have been told to remain indoors because of a “national problem” without details.

The main crossing between China’s Dandong and the north-western North Korean town of Sinuiju was closed in April because of the COVID situation in the Chinese city. read more

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Reporting by Soo-hyang Choi and Joori Roh in Seoul, Ryan Woo in Beijing; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Jack Kim and Gerry Doyle

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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