North Korea has confirmed its first outbreak of COVID-19, raising fears of a humanitarian disaster in one of the world’s only 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 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.
Analysts said Pyongyang’s public admission of the outbreak was probably a sign of the severity of the situation, but not necessarily a sign that Kim would be amenable to outside assistance.
“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 official Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported the Politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party admitting there had been a “breach” in the country’s virus defences, and criticised the department handling the epidemic for its “carelessness, laxity, irresponsibility, and incompetence” in “failing” to respond to the acceleration in transmission around the world, according to the NK News media outlet.
China is currently battling dozens of outbreaks of the virus including in Dandong, which is the North’s main trading link with the country. 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 NK News.
Alastair Morgan, who served as the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the North between 2005 and 2008, said he expected Pyongyang’s response to the outbreak to be at least as draconian as China’s controls.
“The DPRK authorities have the ability and organisation to impose restrictions internally as well as at the border,” Morgan told Al Jazeera, referring to the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“If they prevent all travel between regions and locales this is likely to have severe consequences for citizens. 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.”
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.