North Korea confirms first COVID outbreak; Kim orders confinement

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Thursday imposed a nationwide lockdown to control its first recognized outbreak of COVID-19 after upholding for more than two years a highly disputed claim of a perfect record preventing the virus from spreading. spread to almost all countries. place in the world.

The outbreak forced leader Kim Jong Un to wear a mask in public, likely for the first time since the start of the pandemic, but the scale of transmissions inside North Korea was not immediately known. Failure to curb infections could have dire consequences because the country has a poor health care system and its 26 million people are believed to be largely unvaccinated. Some experts say North Korea, with its rare admission of an outbreak, may be seeking outside help.

However, hours after North Korea confirmed the outbreak, the South Korean military said it detected that the North had fired three suspected ballistic missiles into the sea. It was his 16th round of missile launches this year, a brinkmanship aimed at forcing the United States to accept North Korea as a nuclear power and negotiate sanctions relief and other concessions from a position of strength.

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

In response, Kim called at a ruling party Politburo meeting for a complete lockdown of cities and counties, saying units should isolate workplaces to block the spread of the virus. He urged health workers to step up disinfection efforts in workplaces and homes and mobilize reserve medical supplies.

Kim said it was crucial to control transmissions and remove the source of infection as quickly as possible, while alleviating inconvenience to the public caused by virus checks. He insisted that the country will overcome the outbreak because his government and people are “united as one.”

Despite the heightened response to the virus, Kim ordered officials to go ahead with scheduled construction, agricultural development and other state projects while bolstering the country’s defense posture to avoid any security vacuum.

North Korea’s state television showed Kim and other top officials wearing masks as they entered a meeting room, though Kim removed his mask to speak into a set of microphones. Still photos distributed by KNCA showed Kim without a mask and sitting at the head of a table where all the other officials were wearing masks.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, could not immediately confirm whether it was the first time state media had shown Kim wearing a mask since the start of the pandemic. Kim has previously addressed large crowds without a mask and praised the country’s previous pandemic response, and his decision to be seen wearing a mask could be aimed at heightening public vigilance.

North Korea, which has maintained strict anti-virus checks at 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 the fields or walking the trails in a North Korean border town, an indication that the shutdown does not require people to stay home. home or exempt farm work.

The measures outlined in state media and Kim’s statement that economic goals have yet to be met could indicate North Korea is focusing more on restricting travel and supplies between regions, said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the Institute. Sejong from South Korea.

The North Korean government has rejected vaccines offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly because they have international monitoring requirements.

The Seoul Unification Ministry said South Korea is willing to provide medical and other assistance to North Korea based on humanitarian considerations. Relations between the Koreas have deteriorated since 2019 amid a deadlock in nuclear negotiations and the North’s increasingly provocative weapons tests.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Beijing is offering help to North Korea in dealing with the outbreak. North Korea has reportedly rejected previous Chinese offers for domestically developed vaccines.

Kim Sin-gon, a professor at Seoul Korea University School of Medicine, said North Korea is likely signaling its willingness to receive external vaccines, but wants many more doses than COVAX offers to inoculate the entire country. its population several times. He said North Korea would also want shipments of COVID-19 medicine and medical equipment that are prohibited by UN sanctions.

Omicron spreads much more easily than previous variants of the coronavirus, and its mortality and hospitalization rates are high among older people who are unvaccinated or have existing health problems. That means the outbreak could cause “a serious situation” because North Korea lacks medical equipment and medicine to treat virus patients and many of its people are not well fed, Kim Sin-gon said.

Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website that focuses on health issues in North Korea, said North Korea’s admission of the outbreak is likely designed to push its people harder to protect against the virus as China, which shares a long and porous border with the north, has put many of its cities under lockdown over virus concerns.

North Korea is also likely to emphasize lockdowns, though experience with China’s “COVID zero” policy suggests that approach doesn’t work against the fast-moving omicron variant, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies. at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. .

“For Pyongyang to publicly admit to omicron cases, the public health situation has to be dire,” Easley said. “This does not mean that North Korea will suddenly open up to humanitarian assistance and take a more conciliatory line towards Washington and Seoul. But the Kim regime’s internal audience may be less interested in nuclear or missile tests when the urgent threat involves the coronavirus rather than a foreign military.”

Many foreign experts had disputed the earlier claim of North Korea being coronavirus-free. But South Korean officials have said North Korea likely avoided a major outbreak, in part because it instituted strict virus controls almost from the start of the pandemic.

In early 2020, before the coronavirus spread across the world, North Korea took drastic measures to keep the virus at bay, describing them as a matter of “national existence.” He virtually stopped cross-border trade and trafficking for two years, and is even believed to have ordered troops to shoot down any trespassers who crossed his borders.

The extreme border closures further shocked an economy already damaged by decades of mismanagement and US-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile program, thrusting Kim into the most difficult moment of his rule since he took power in 2011.

North Korea has been one of the last places in the world without a recognized case of COVID-19 after the virus first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 spread to everyone. the continents, including Antarctica. Turkmenistan, a similarly secretive and authoritarian nation in Central Asia, has not reported any cases to the World Health Organization, although outside experts also widely doubt his claim.

In recent months, some Pacific island nations that kept the virus at bay because of their geographic isolation have seen outbreaks. Only tiny Tuvalu, with a population of about 12,000, has so far escaped the virus, while a few other nations — Nauru, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands — have halted cases at their borders and avoided community outbreaks.

The North Korea outbreak comes as China, its close ally and trading partner, is battling its largest outbreak of the pandemic.

In January, North Korea tentatively reopened rail freight traffic between its border city 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 writers 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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