North Korea declared a “state of emergency” and ordered a lockdown on Sunday of the border town, Kaesong, after a person suspected to have been infected with the coronavirus illegally entered North Korea from the South.
If true, this would mark the first case of COVID-19 officially acknowledged by the North Korean government.
“An emergency event happened in Kaesong City where a runaway who went to the south three years ago, a person who is suspected to have been infected with the vicious virus returned on July 19 after illegally crossing the demarcation line,” reported official state mouthpiece KCNA.
Defections from North Korea are fairly common; more than 30,000 North Koreans are suspected to have fled to South Korea since the 1990s. Some have even surprisingly chosen to return to the North after failing to adapt to life in the capitalist South. However, it is extremely rare for people to travel across the inter-Korean border across the demilitarized zone (DMZ), one of the most heavily armed borders in the world.
While they did not confirm outright if the person in question had the virus, they mentioned that “uncertain result was made from several medical checkups of the secretion of that person’s upper respiratory organ and blood.” Officials have since quarantined the person and launched contact tracing investigations based on these suspicions.
According to KCNA, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held an emergency meeting to assess the “critical situation in which the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country,” after which he officially enacted a shift to “the maximum emergency system and [issued] a top-class alert.”
As part of his stringent response to combat a potential outbreak, Kim “took the preemptive measure of totally blocking Kaesong City and isolating each district and region from the other,” stated KCNA.
The hermit kingdom had previously lauded their “shining success” in virus prevention, reporting that they had no cases of COVID-19, despite doubt from external analysts.
However, North Korea’s early reaction to the pandemic was drastic and stringent. It closed all its borders and shut down business with China, which accounts for almost all of its external trade, as well as mandating month-long quarantine periods for all diplomats and clamping down on smugglers.
As one of the most isolated and tightly controlled countries in the world, the government may have had an easier job in controlling the spread of the virus within its borders. However, its isolation from the rest of the world, as well as acting sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, also make it difficult to procure the medical supplies needed to fight an outbreak if it occurs.
Some analysts believe that the announcement of the first suspected case of COVID-19 was significant because it could represent an attempt to call for help.
A professor at Kyung Hee University in South Korea Choo Jae-woo said, “It’s an ice-breaking moment for North Korea to admit a case. It could be reaching out to the world for help. Perhaps for humanitarian assistance.”
Despite receiving coronavirus test kits from Russia and other international relief agencies, North Korea is still ill-equipped to handle any potential outbreak.
North Korea’s economy is already under immense strain from international sanctions and it is estimated to have one of the highest rates of absolute poverty in the world as well as an underequipped public health system.
“North Korea is in such a dire situation, where they can’t even finish building the Pyongyang General Hospital on time,” said Cho Han-bum, senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
“Pointing the blame at an ‘imported case’ from South Korea, the North can use this as a way to openly accept aid from the South.”
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