North Korea admits to coronavirus outbreak for the first time

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TOKYO — North Korea on Thursday reported its first coronavirus outbreak since the pandemic began almost two years ago, with state media declaring a “most serious national emergency.”

The detection of the BA.2 omicron subvariant of the coronavirus in the capital, Pyongyang, is a concerning development for a country that has a fragile health care system, brewing humanitarian crisis and remains one of two nations in the world that have not administered any coronavirus vaccines.

Experts warn that North Korea risks becoming the epicenter of new variants due to the population’s low immunity to the virus.

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North Korea until today maintained it has had no positive cases, though many experts doubted the veracity of that claim. The announcement, however, suggests that the circumstances of this outbreak warranted a public admission.

North Korean state media said tests were conducted Sunday on a group of people from an unknown organization in Pyongyang who showed symptoms of fever. Results subsequently indicated that they were infected with the BA.2 subvariant.

North Korea had already been in a strict pandemic lockdown, banning tourists, diplomats, aid workers and most trade by land with China. On Thursday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un heightened border controls, ordering a lockdown of all cities and counties. State media called the outbreak “the most serious national emergency.”

NKNews, a Seoul-based website focused on monitoring North Korea, had reported this week that people in Pyongyang were ordered into lockdown, after warnings of a “national problem.” Individuals told the outlet there was panic buying and supply shortages as residents feared a prolonged lockdown in the capital.

In recent weeks, North Korean state media repeatedly warned about taking greater covid precautions because of outbreaks along its border with China, urging the public to “strengthen the anti-epidemic work in preparation for the prolonged emergency.”

The Politburo blamed the “carelessness, laxity, irresponsibility and incompetence” of epidemic sector for the outbreak, according to state media. Although Kim has occasionally been open about his regime’s failures and problems, such as admitting the country’s “food crisis,” it is notable for North Korea to admit lapses in its anti-virus measures.

On Thursday, Kim warned against any further lapses and called for greater vigilance along its border with China. He said the North Korean public had already endured a “prolonged emergency anti-virus fight” and would overcome the crisis.

“What is more dangerous to us than the virus is unscientific fear, lack of trust and willpower,” Kim said, according to state media.

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Go Myong-hyun, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies in Seoul, said while this is probably not the first coronavirus case in North Korea, it may have presented an opportunity for Kim to emphasize his efforts to control the virus — especially given the reports already swirling about Pyongyang’s lockdown.

“I think the main reason why the regime is officially acknowledging the existence of covid in the country is because it happened in Pyongyang and the regime knows that the world would find out about this sooner or later,” Go said. “It’s probably more about demonstrating control rather than crying for help.”

Pyongyang has repeatedly rejected offers of millions of doses from a United Nations-backed global vaccination effort. North Korea’s strict border lockdown, which allows only a minimal level of trade with China, has exacerbated the country’s food crisis, according to the United Nations.

Kee Park, a global health expert at Harvard Medical School who has worked on health-care projects in North Korea, called on the international community to help North Korea respond to the breach, including with offers of mRNA vaccines and therapeutics.

“They would need to reconsider additional measures to protect their population including nationwide vaccination programs,” Park said. “It is in everyone’s interest to help North Korea in responding to the breach. No one wants another variant.”

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