North Korean authorities imposed a lockdown on the border city of Kaesong after discovering what they say is the country’s first suspected coronavirus case.
Leader Kim Jong Un convened an emergency politburo meeting to implement a “maximum emergency system and issue a top-class alert” to contain the virus, the official Korean Central News Agency reported on Sunday.
Kim was quoted as saying “the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country”, and officials took the “pre-emptive measure of totally blocking Kaesong city”.
If confirmed, it would be the first officially recognised case of COVID-19 in North Korea, where medical infrastructure is seen as woefully inadequate to deal with any epidemic.
KCNA said a defector who left for South Korea three years ago returned on July 19 after “illegally crossing” the heavily fortified border dividing the two countries.
It is extremely rare for anyone to leave the South through what is one of the world’s most secure borders, replete with minefields and guard posts.
But the South Korean military said there was a “high possibility” that a defector recently returned.
A 24-year-old man is believed to have swum back to the North after being investigated for rape allegations in the South, according to multiple media reports and defectors.
Pyongyang previously insisted that not a single case of the coronavirus had been seen in the North despite the pandemic sweeping the globe, and the country’s borders remain closed.
The patient was found in Kaesong city, which borders South Korea, and “was put under strict quarantine”, as would any close contacts, KCNA said.
It was a “dangerous situation … that may lead to a deadly and destructive disaster”, the agency added.
Cho Han-bum, a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said it was significant that North Korea was reporting that its first suspected coronavirus case was imported.
“North Korea is in such a dire situation, where they can’t even finish building the Pyongyang General Hospital on time. Pointing the blame at an ‘imported case’ from South Korea, the North can use this as a way to openly accept aid from the South,” Cho said.
Nuclear-armed North Korea closed its borders in late January as the virus spread in neighbouring China.
It imposed tough restrictions that put thousands of people into quarantine, but analysts say the isolated state is unlikely to have avoided the contagion.
Kaesong, a city with an estimated population of 200,000, is located just north of the heavily fortified land border with South Korea.
It once hosted the Koreas’ jointly run industrial complex, which has been shut since 2016 amid nuclear tensions.
Last month, North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong to protest against a campaign by South Korean activists who have been sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border.
China and North Korea share a 1,400-km (870-mile) border that is especially porous during the winter, when frozen rivers allow people to cross more easily in and out of the two countries.
Dozens of North Koreans cross the border to smuggle black market goods every day and analysts suggest they may have carried the virus into the isolated country before the frontier was closed.
“There’s no question the coronavirus in the North is imported from China,” said Go Myong-hyun, an analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, noting the heavy border traffic and China’s high total number of cases.
But Pyongyang was singling out the case from the South to highlight defectors as “dangerous beings”, Go said, as the North ramps up pressure against Seoul.
South Korea is currently recording about 40 to 60 new infections a day, with most of them imported cases.
Another analyst said the announcement was important not only because North Korea was for the first time reporting a suspected coronavirus case, but also because it suggested it was appealing for help.
“It’s an ice-breaking moment for North Korea to admit a case,” said Choo Jae-woo, a professor at Kyung Hee University. “It could be reaching out to the world for help. Perhaps for humanitarian assistance.”
North Korea is under economic pressure because of international sanctions over its nuclear programme.
Earlier this month Kim warned against any “hasty” relaxation of anti-coronavirus measures, indicating the North would keep its borders closed for the foreseeable future.
More than 30,000 North Korean civilians have fled their homeland since the peninsula was divided at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
North Korea has received thousands of coronavirus testing kits from Russia and other countries.