On Thursday, North Korea announced its first coronavirus infection in more than two years, when leader Kim Jong Un called for COVID-19 prevention measures to be maximized.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that unverified tests of people suffering from fever in the capital Pyongyang on Thursday confirmed that they were infected with the Omicron version. North Korea has previously claimed to have a perfect record for avoiding COVID-19, a claim widely questioned by outside experts.
The country’s 26 million population is estimated to be largely unvaccinated after its government rejected vaccines offered by the UN-sponsored COVAX distribution program, possibly due to international monitoring requirements.
The KCNA said that Kim had convened a meeting of the Politburo of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, where members decided to raise anti-virus measures.
During the meeting, Kim called on officials to stabilize the transmissions and eliminate the source of the infection as soon as possible.
Despite the decision to step up anti-virus measures, Kim instructed officials to move forward with planned construction, agricultural development and other state projects, while strengthening the country’s defenses to avoid a security vacuum.
Kim said officials should take steps to alleviate any public inconvenience and other negative situations that could erupt as a result of intensified anti-epidemic measures. “Unilateral social cohesion is the strongest guarantee that we can win this anti-epidemic struggle,” Kim said, according to KCNA.
The announcement from North Korea came after NK News, a North Korean-based news website, quoted unnamed sources as saying authorities were blocking Pyongyang residents. The South Korean government has said it cannot confirm the message.
North Korea was one of the last places in the world without a known case of the virus. Turkmenistan, an equally secretive and authoritarian nation in Central Asia, has not reported to the World Health Organization that its claims are also widely questioned by foreign experts. Outbreaks appear to be exacerbated during recent months in some Pacific islands, where the virus has been isolated due to its geographical isolation.
Special Challenges for North Korea
Experts say a major outbreak of COVID-19 could have devastating consequences for North Korea’s poor health care system, which could cause instability when combined with other problems, such as severe food shortages.
North Korea’s previous claim without a coronavirus has been challenged by a number of foreign experts. But South Korean officials say the North has probably avoided a major outbreak, in part because it has established strict viral control almost since the outbreak.
In early 2020, before the coronavirus spread around the world, North Korea took serious steps to avoid the virus, calling it a matter of national existence. It quarantined people like COVID-19; all but one stopped cross-border traffic and trade for two years;
The extreme closure of the border further shocked the economy, which had already suffered from decades of mismanagement, US-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile program, and pushed Kim into the most difficult moment of her rule. Since 2011 when he took power.
North Korea temporarily reopened rail freight through its border town of Dandong in China, Xinjiang, in January, but China announced it would stop trading last month because of the COVID-19 deployment in Dandun.
It is unusual for North Korea to acknowledge an outbreak of a contagious disease, although Kim has at times been frank about national “social issues” and policy failures.
During the 2009 flu epidemic when the country was ruled by his father, Kim Jong Il, North Korea said nine people had been infected with the flu in Pyongyang, in the northwestern border town of Xinjiang. Some foreign experts said that the reception was aimed at gaining foreign aid at the time.
Experts say Kim Jong Un has not yet publicly asked for help, including the COVID-19 vaccine from the United States amid a long-running nuclear stalemate.
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