North Korea has confirmed its first outbreak of COVID-19, raising fears of a humanitarian disaster in one of the world’s few unvaccinated countries as it goes into a nationwide lockdown.
Authorities detected a sub-variant of the highly transmissible Omicron coronavirus variant, BA.2, in people in Pyongyang, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on Thursday, without elaborating on the number of confirmed cases.
“There has been the biggest emergency incident in the country, with a hole in our emergency quarantine front, that has been kept safely over the past two years and three months since February 2020,” the state broadcaster said.
It added that “maximum” control efforts were being imposed in Pyongyang.
It reported later that North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un had “called on all the cities and counties of the whole country to thoroughly lock down their areas” with factories, businesses and homes closed down and reorganised “to flawlessly and perfectly block the spread vacuum of the malicious virus”.
The North, which sealed its borders in January 2020, had been one of the few countries on Earth not to report an outbreak of COVID-19, although analysts have long expressed doubt about the official figures given the country’s long, porous land border with China.
Authorities in China are currently battling dozens of outbreaks of the virus including in the border city of Dandong, which is the North’s main trading link with its neighbour. Pyongyang suspended inbound rail cargo from China in late April as a result of the outbreaks, only four months after resuming the service, according to the NK News outlet.
‘Period of uncertainty’
South Korea’s government responded to North Korea’s coronavirus outbreak with concern, saying it hoped the disease “will no longer spread” and that “the situation will be stabilised early”.
It also raised the possibility of support for North Korea, saying “inter-Korean cooperation in quarantine and healthcare can be promoted at any time from a humanitarian point of view” amid global sanctions on the country over its nuclear and missile programme.
But analysts said Pyongyang’s public admission of the outbreak was not necessarily a sign that Kim would be amenable to outside assistance, though it signalled the severity of the situation.
North Korea was likely to pursue controls as draconian as China’s, which is pursuing a “zero-COVID” strategy despite concern that the curbs may not be sustainable.
“Pyongyang will likely double down on lockdowns, even though the failure of China’s zero-COVID strategy suggests that approach won’t work against the omicron variant,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said in emailed comments.
“North Korea is entering a period of uncertainty in managing its domestic challenges and international isolation. The Kim regime would be well advised to swallow its pride and quickly seek donations of vaccines and therapeutics.”
The North has repeatedly rejected offers of vaccines from the United Nations-backed global vaccination initiative, and aid workers have warned that it would struggle to handle a major coronavirus outbreak, given its dilapidated health system.
“The North Korean medical system is antiquated, fragile and drastically ill-equipped to deal with a major outbreak,” said Tim Peters, a Christian aid worker who runs the Helping Hands Korea organisation in Seoul. “The fact that 40 percent of the population is in need of food assistance speaks volumes about the weak immune systems of at least 11 million North Korean citizens. In short, the outdated healthcare infrastructure and highly vulnerable population is a catastrophe waiting to happen. I sincerely hope it doesn’t.”
Before the pandemic, the UN estimated that more than one-quarter of North Koreans suffered from malnourishment. In July, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said the country was struggling to feed itself.
Kim, speaking at a Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party, said on Thursday that the North will “surely overcome the current situation” at all costs and said despite the lockdowns, officials must carry out the country’s economic development plan and construction projects.
Analysts said North Korea’s curbs could increase the suffering of its people.
Alastair Morgan, who served as the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the North between 2005 and 2008, said if authorities in Pyongyang prevented “all travel between regions and locales this is likely to have severe consequences for citizens”.
He told Al Jazeera, “There was when I was there some reliance on cross-regional transportation of food and other provisions, though this may have changed to some extent under DPRK measures to date. It will also restrict the access of citizens to clinics and hospital facilities.”
Musun Kim contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.