North Korea confirms first COVID outbreak

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 size of the outbreak was not immediately known, but it could have serious consequences because the country has a poor health system and its 26 million people are believed to be largely unvaccinated. Some experts say the North, with its rare admission of an outbreak, may be seeking outside help.

The official Korean Central News Agency said tests on 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, leader Kim Jong Un during a ruling party Politburo meeting called for a complete lockdown of cities and counties and said workplaces should be isolated by units to block the spread of the virus, KCNA said. He urged health workers to step up disinfection efforts in workplaces and homes and mobilize reserve medical supplies.

Kim said it was crucial to stabilize transmissions and eliminate the source of infection as quickly as possible, while alleviating inconvenience to the public caused by virus checks. Kim insisted that the country will surely get through what he described as an unexpected outbreak because his 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 blockade. But an Associated Press photographer on the South Korean side of the border saw dozens of people working in farm fields or walking along trails in a North Korean border town, an indication that the shutdown does not require people to stay indoors. home or exempt farm work.

The measures outlined in state media and Kim’s statement that economic goals must be met may indicate that North Korea is not strictly confining people to their homes and is focusing more on restricting travel and supplies between regions. to curb viral spread, analyst Cheong Seong-Chang of the Sejong Institute in South Korea.

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

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said the South is willing to provide medical and other assistance to the North 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 demonstrations.

Kim Sin-gon, a professor at Seoul Korea University School of Medicine, said North Korea is likely signaling its willingness to receive vaccine shipments from abroad, but wants many more doses than COVAX offers for inoculate your entire population multiple times. He said North Korea would also want COVID-19 drugs, as well as shipments of medical equipment that are prohibited by UN sanctions.

The omicron variant spreads much more easily than earlier variants of the virus, 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 might want an international shipment of pills to treat COVID-19. But he said the North’s admission of the outbreak is also 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 cities under lockdown. over concerns about the virus.

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

The North is likely to double down on lockdowns, even though the failure of China’s “zero-COVID” approach suggests that approach doesn’t work against the fast-moving omicron variant, said Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha from Seoul. Women’s University.

“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.” traffic and commerce for two years, and is even believed to have ordered troops to shoot down any intruders 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.

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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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