This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korea acknowledged its first confirmed COVID-19 cases and at least one death from the disease on Thursday, after more than two years of claiming the country was “virus free.”
The state-run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that 187,800 people are undergoing treatment in quarantine for a fever of unknown origin that has spread throughout the country since the end of last month.
The report did not specify how many people had tested positive for COVID-19.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presided over a meeting of the Politburo where he ordered a nationwide lockdown and declared a “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system,” KCNA said Thursday.
A resident of Pyongyang told RFA’s Korean Service that the capital Pyongyang was on lockdown after health authorities in the city confirmed a case of the virus two days before.
“At 5 p.m. [Tuesday], an emergency directive from the national emergency quarantine command of the Central Party’s Political Bureau was issued to all parts of Pyongyang. Specific project details were delivered to the city’s various levels of units, enterprises and the neighborhood watch units in implementing the quarantine project to the maximum emergency quarantine system,” the source said on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“The instructions are to prohibit group gatherings, strictly observe personal hygiene, social distance, wash our hands frequently, boil water before drinking it, gargling with salt water frequently to disinfect, and properly ventilate the indoor air to prevent coronavirus,” the source said.
There have been many instances of hospital patients exhibiting signs of COVID-19, but quarantine authorities had been diagnosing cases as pneumonia or the flu, the source said.
“Residents are confused why the quarantine authorities are suddenly acknowledging coronavirus. Shops, restaurants and marketplaces are all closed. If the lockdown is prolonged, it will disrupt the lives of the residents,” said the source.
In the city of Sinuiju in North Pyongan province, across the Yalu River from China, a complete lockdown was underway on Wednesday, a resident there told RFA.
“All sectors, including the party, administrative organizations, economic organizations, the police, state security and the armed forces, emphasized the thorough implementation of the instructions of the national emergency quarantine command,” said the second source on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“It is the first time that we have acknowledged the influx of COVID-19 and it is the stealth Omicron variant. Authorities are reassuring residents that it is a virus similar to pneumonia or flu and can be overcome with domestically produced drugs,” the second source said.
This source said that a relative in Pyongyang had said that that starting tomorrow an intensive medical screening for all city residents will start. Already citizens are prohibited from going to work, increasing the level of economic anxiety in the country at a time when many are already struggling to get by.
“The people are about to fall into a period of chaos, as they cannot even make ends meet prior to the emergency,” the second source said.
The World Health Organization (WHO) told RFA on Thursday that it has not yet received information from North Korea’s Ministry of Health regarding the confirmed COVID-19 case as reported by KCNA.
North Korea is eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX global vaccine sharing project, the WHO said. Pyongyang refused to accept vaccines from COVAX earlier in the pandemic when it was still claiming to be “virus-free.”
Reuters reported that Washington has no immediate plans to share vaccines with Pyongyang, quoting a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council.
Amnesty International called on the North Korean government to ensure that its people were immunized against the disease, which is now estimated to have killed more than 6 million people across the globe.
“There is no evidence to show that North Korea has access to enough vaccines to protect its population from COVID-19,” Boram Jang, Amnesty International’s East Asia researcher, said.
“With the first official news of a Covid-19 outbreak in the country, continuing on this path could cost many lives and would be an unconscionable dereliction of upholding the right to health,” she said. “The North Korean government should immediately establish plans to secure COVID-19 vaccines for its population by cooperating with the international community.”
North Korea’s timing in acknowledging that the virus has entered its borders is “noteworthy,” Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst now with the RAND corporation, told RFA.
“The international community never turned a blind eye toward North Korea’s coronavirus situation; it was the Kim regime that consistently rejected offers of PPE and vaccines on unjustifiable grounds,” she said.
“It’s possible that the situation with the coronavirus in North Korea has significantly worsened to a point where the regime can no longer suppress it or cope on its own. But then the question remains — the situation could have been contained had the Kim regime accepted international assistance from the beginning. So why now?” she said.
Soo Kim said that economic anxiety, rather than public health concerns, may have motivated North Korea to stray from its claims of having zero confirmed cases.
“Extensive lockdown, border closures, and Kim’s already incompetent state management can only take him so far in suppressing the realities of the pandemic,” she said.
Harry Kazianis, the president and CEO at the Rogue States project, told RFA that COVID-19 has been present in North Korea since the beginning of the pandemic.
“However, over the last few months as Omicron has crept into the country, North Korean officials cannot use the same brute force tactics of locking people in their homes or isolating entire villages as spread happens so fast. So now, Pyongyang must admit to their being a problem as there is no way no they can hide it,” he said.
“Unless North Korea suffers tens of thousands of casualties, I doubt the DPRK will ask for help at this point. They do not want to show any weakness at all and want to always project an image of strength and control of their population. Asking for help would be, in the DPRK’s eyes, an admission of failure,” Kazianis said.