North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered all cities to be put under lockdown after the state for the first time Thursday said it has COVID-19 in its borders.
“A serious situation has been created due to the introduction of a stealth omicron mutant virus into our precincts,” its official Korean Central News Agency said. At a party meeting Thursday attended by Kim, authorities elevated the country’s national quarantine measures to “maximum emergency,” it added.
Kim ordered “all cities and counties across the country to thoroughly lockdown their areas,” so as to “completely block the transmission of malicious virus,” according to KCNA.
Until Thursday, Kim’s regime had denied it had any COVID cases, a claim doubted by experts in the U.S., Japan and other countries. It has also refused vaccines from the outside world, with reports saying planned shipments have been put on hold because North Korea was unwilling to follow rules by Covax, a body backed by the World Health Organization.
In August 2020, North Korea said it was pushing ahead with the development of a vaccine against the virus, but has given scant mention of vaccines since then. Any COVID-19 outbreak in North Korea, if widespread, could potentially be devastating given the country has an antiquated health care system and likely no vaccines.
The outbreak may also help answer a pressing question about the severity of the highly infectious omicron variant that’s currently circumventing the world. Scientists are split about whether the strain is less dangerous than the original pathogen that emerged in Wuhan in late 2019, or whether vaccinations and immunity from previous infections has neutered its impact.
North Korea’s drastic COVID containment measures have worsened the regime’s economic woes, particularly the border closure more than two years ago with China, its biggest trade partner. Along with international sanctions, the measures have walloped sanctions-hit North Korea’s economy.
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