After more than two years of escaping the pandemic, one of the world’s most remote countries has finally registered its first case of Covid.
North Korea on Thursday confirmed its first-ever Covid cases, declaring a “serious emergency” with leader Kim Jong-un ordering lockdowns across the country.
The nuclear-armed country had never admitted a case of Covid-19 and the government had imposed a rigid coronavirus blockade of its borders since the start of the pandemic in 2020.
But samples taken from patients with fever in Pyongyang “coincided with Omicron BA. 2 variant,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
Top officials, including leader Kim Jong-un, held a crisis politburo meeting on Thursday to discuss the outbreak and announced they would implement the “maximum emergency system for epidemic prevention.”
Kim “called on all cities and counties across the country to thoroughly seal off their areas,” KCNA reported, though details of the restrictions were not immediately given.
The North Korean charger told the meeting that the goal was to “quickly cure the infections to eradicate the source of the virus spread,” according to KCNA.
He added that North Korea “will overcome the current sudden situation and win in the work of epidemic prevention”.
It was not clear from the KCNA report how many Covid infections had been detected.
North Korea’s crumbling health infrastructure would struggle to cope with a major outbreak, with 25 million people believed to be unvaccinated, experts say.
“If Pyongyang is to publicly admit omicron cases, the public health situation has to be serious,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“Pyongyang is likely to double its lockdowns, although the failure of China’s zero-covid strategy suggests that approach won’t work against the Omicron variant.”
North Korea has rejected offers of vaccines from the World Health Organization and China and Russia.
Accepting vaccines through the WHO’s Covax scheme “requires transparency about how vaccines are distributed,” Go Myong-hyun, a researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies told AFP.
“That’s why North Korea rejected it,” Go said.
North Korea is surrounded by countries that have fought – or are still fighting for control of – significant outbreaks of Omicron.
South Korea, which has high vaccination rates, has recently relaxed nearly all Covid-19 restrictions, with cases falling sharply after an Omicron-fueled peak in March.
Neighboring China, the world’s only major economy still pursuing a zero-covid policy, is battling multiple Omicron outbreaks.
Major Chinese cities, including the financial capital Shanghai, have been under strict lockdowns for weeks.
It appears North Korea will try to avoid China’s extreme measures, such as “practically locking residents in apartments,” said Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute.
But even more limited lockdowns would create a “serious food shortage and the same chaos China is now dealing with,” he said.
Seoul-based specialist site NK News reported that parts of Pyongyang had been shut down for two days, with reports of panic buying.
The public rise of Covid in Pyongyang could also affect North Korea’s nuclear program.
South Korea’s aggressive new president Yoon Suk-yeol, who was sworn in on Tuesday, has vowed to crack down on Pyongyang after five years of failed diplomacy.
After high-profile talks fell through in 2019, North Korea has doubled its weapons tests, carrying out a string of launches so far this year, including intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Satellite images indicate that North Korea is preparing to conduct a nuclear test, and the United States has warned that it could take place as early as this month.
But the Covid-19 outbreak could potentially disrupt their military program, analysts said.
“There is an opportunity to postpone the nuclear test to focus on overcoming the coronavirus,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, told AFP.
But he said that if public fear of an outbreak spread, Kim could go ahead with a test “to divert this fear elsewhere”.