North Korea has confirmed its first coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic and imposed lockdowns of cities, as health experts warned about the potential impact of an outbreak in a country that has not conducted a vaccination campaign.
State news agency KCNA said on Thursday that an unspecified number of people in Pyongyang had contracted the Omicron variant of Covid-19. “There has been the biggest emergency incident in the country, with a hole in our emergency quarantine front, that has kept us safe over the past two years and three months since February 2020,” said the report.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered “all cities and counties across the country to thoroughly lockdown their areas” in order to “completely block the transmission of malicious virus”.
Kim sealed borders with China and Russia, tightened restrictions on movement within the country and ejected foreign diplomats and aid workers after the emergence of coronavirus in early 2020. The country has allowed only very limited transport of freight from China, which must pass through specially- constructed disinfection centers.
China, which has been grappling with an Omicron outbreak since March, pledged “full support and assistance” to North Korean authorities.
“China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are friendly neighbors linked by mountains and rivers, and the two sides have a fine tradition of helping each other,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian.
“Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, the DPRK has been firmly supporting China in its fight against the epidemic, for which China is deeply grateful.”
Along with Eritrea, North Korea is one of only two countries in the world to have not initiated a Covid-19 vaccination programme, and it has consistently refused offers of vaccines through the World Health Organization’s Covax initiative.
Pyongyang has expressed concerns over the safety of AstraZeneca jabs and rejected offers of Russian and Chinese vaccines.
The government was understood to want tens of millions of mRNA vaccines or wait for widespread proliferation of orally-administered antiviral treatments, according to health experts.
Experts have long expressed fears of the consequences of an outbreak in a country that has a severe shortage of respirators and testing facilities.
“North Koreans with no existing protection are at definite risk, and there could be a large rise in excess mortality, especially among vulnerable, food-insecure members of the population,” said Peter Ward, a Seoul-based expert on the North Korean economy at the University of Vienna.
Kim’s border closures also intensified the economic damage from international sanctions imposed on North Korea in response to nuclear and ballistic missile tests in 2017, as well as the effects of a series of droughts and floods.
“The economy has already taken a battering, and sustained lockdowns could severely impact the urban commercial economy still further,” said Ward. “They would make it even harder for poorer segments of urban society to eke out an existence.”
The KCNA report quoted the politburo of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea castigating health officials for their “carelessness, laxity, irresponsibility, and incompetence”.
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing