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Covid-19: after a first case detected in North Korea, Kim Jong Un orders national containment

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered nationwide ‘lockdown’ measures after the country detected its first ever case of Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, state media reported on Thursday 12 may. Kim Jong Un “called on all cities and counties across the country to carefully confine their territories and organize labor and production after isolating each work unit, each production unit and each dwelling unit from each other to block the spread of the “malicious virus”, the official KCNA news agency said. After two years of fighting the pandemic, samples taken from feverish patients in Pyongyang “coincide with the Omicron BA.2 variant”, the official KCNA news agency reported. “For Pyongyang to publicly admit cases of Omicron, the public health situation must be serious,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

Seoul-based NK News, citing sources in Pyongyang, reported that neighborhoods in the North Korean capital had been locked down for two days, also reporting panic buying. Experts say the country’s flawed healthcare system would struggle to cope with a major outbreak, especially since North Korea has failed to vaccinate any of its 25 million people, having rejected offers of vaccinations from WHO, China and Russia. Accepting vaccines through the WHO’s Covax program requires “transparency about how vaccines are distributed,” Go Myong-hyun, a researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, told AFP, “c That’s why North Korea rejected it.”

No cases previously reported to WHO

North Korea has long boasted of its ability to keep the virus at bay, and had not reported a single confirmed case of Covid-19 to the World Health Organization. According to the institution, North Korea had conducted 13,259 anti-Covid tests in 2020, all of which turned out to be negative. During a military parade in 2020, Kim Jong Un thanked citizens and servicemen for their loyalty and for staying healthy in the face of the global pandemic. State media had previously spoken of “epidemic prevention” measures, and civilians were sometimes seen wearing masks in official photographs. But during the massive military parade in Pyongyang in late April, broadcast by state media, none of the thousands in attendance were seen wearing masks.

North Korea is surrounded by countries that have struggled or are still struggling to eradicate significant foci of Omicron. South Korea, where vaccination rates are high, recently eased nearly all health restrictions as cases fell sharply after an outbreak in March. Neighboring China, the world’s only major economy to maintain a zero Covid policy, is grappling with multiple outbreaks of Omicron, and has locked down several major cities including the financial capital Shanghai.

Armament tests disrupted

Analysts say the health crisis in North Korea could disrupt the country’s weapons tests. Pyongyang has already carried out more than a dozen weapons tests this year, including a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile, for the first time since 2017. Satellite images indicate North Korea is preparing to carry out a nuclear test, and the United States has warned that it could happen as early as this month. “It is possible that the nuclear test will be delayed in order to focus on containing the coronavirus,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told AFP. But he added that if people’s fears of an outbreak spread, Kim Jong Un could conduct a trial “to deflect that fear”.

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