North Korea has recorded its first official COVID-19 infection, state-run media reported on Thursday, with leader Kim Jong Un announcing a strict lockdown at an emergency meeting of top politburo officials.
Samples taken from patients with fevers in the capital city of Pyongyang “coincided with” the highly contagious Omicron BA.2 coronavirus variant, the Korean Central News Agency reported. Officials at the meeting announced that they would implement a “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system.”
The number of positive cases was not detailed.
At the meeting, Kim called on “all the cities and counties of the whole country to thoroughly lock down,” KCNA reported, in order to “flawlessly and perfectly block the spread” of the virus. He also ordered officials to conduct extensive nationwide testing and disinfection campaigns.
North Korea was quick to completely seal its borders in January 2020 after the first outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, and until now had insisted that it’s had no cases — a claim that many outside observers have questioned.
Experts believe that North Korea remains one of only two unvaccinated countries in the world, as Pyongyang has repeatedly rejected offers from China, Russia and the COVAX global vaccine sharing program. Eritrea is the world’s other vaccine holdout.
Kim stressed the need to tighten the seal around the isolated country, emphasizing that “guard duty should be further strengthened on the fronts, borders, seas and air,” KCNA said.
The politburo “censured the epidemic prevention sectors for their carelessness, relaxation, irresponsibility and inefficiency,” according to the KCNA report. Health officials were faulted for not keeping up with the spread of new COVID-19 variants around the world, including in “surrounding regions” of North Korea.
China, North Korea’s largest neighbor and most important trading partner, is struggling to contain an Omicron-driven outbreak that has led it to lock down tens of millions of people in an effort to maintain a “zero-COVID” policy.
The source of the positive cases in North Korea is unclear. The country held a major military parade in Pyongyang on April 25 at which tens of thousands of attendees and participants were seen without masks.
Also unclear is how the lockdown will affect the secretive state’s plans for further weapons tests, including a widely anticipated nuclear detonation.
North Korea has conducted a flurry of missile launches this year and the U.S. State Department said last week that it appears poised for its first nuclear test since 2017.
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