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North Korea confirms COVID-19 outbreak, Kim orders lockdown

The emergency situation would not hold Pyongyang back from its nuclear ambitions, experts say

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (center) presides over a politburo meeting of the Workers’ Party at the headquarters of the party’s Central Committee in Pyongyang, North Korea, Thursday. (Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (center) presides over a politburo meeting of the Workers’ Party at the headquarters of the party’s Central Committee in Pyongyang, North Korea, Thursday. (Yonhap)

North Korea officially confirmed a COVID-19 outbreak for the first time in a state media report on Thursday. Calling the situation the “biggest emergency,” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered a de-facto lockdown to prevent further spread of the disease.

According to the Korean Central News Agency, Pyongyang has detected cases of the stealth omicron variant, the highly transmissible offshoot of the omicron virus.

“The country’s biggest emergency has occurred with a hole in our emergency quarantine front which we have kept safe for two years and three months since February 2020,” the KCNA said.

An organization in its capital city has collected samples from patients with high fevers on Sunday, and concluded that the gene arrangements are identical to the omicron variant, the media outlet said.

It is the first time the reclusive regime officially confirmed COVID-19 infections in the country.

The KCNA did not reveal the number of confirmed cases and the possible sources of infection.

Following the detection of the virus, North Korea held a politburo meeting of the Workers‘ Party with its leader Kim Jong-un in attendance to discuss the response measures, including a de-facto lockdown.

In the meeting, Kim ordered all cities to completely halt transfers and movements between regions, and isolate by industry groups, production units and living units to prevent the spread of the virus, according to the report.

At the same time, Kim urged the people to maintain morale in the workforce, saying the country’s key business sectors such as farms and factories should continue to do their best to successfully meet their national production goals.

The North Korean leader also called for tighter vigilance on all fronts, including borders on land, sea and air to maintain a safety vacuum for national defense.

Kim also said state entities should come up with “strict measures” to minimize inconveniences its people would suffer from the quarantine restrictions and to stabilize people’s livelihoods. This indicated the leader’s awareness of China’s situation, where people have made strong complaints due to the Chinese government’s strict lockdown measures.

Observers here view the spread of the highly transmissible virus as likely putting a halt to North Korea’s economic activities.

“Pyongyang is likely to only restrict movement between regions, instead of taking radical measures to lock people down in their homes,” Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, said.

“But blocking all movements of people and goods between regions and production units would cut supplies of necessary materials for production.”

Despite the emergency situation, the reclusive regime is expected to maintain a hardline stance on the defense front, especially with the advent of South Korea’s Yoon Suk-yeol administration, which is hawkish towards the North.

“To counter the Yoon Suk-yeol administration which holds a hardline stance against the North, Pyongyang is expected to reinforce its nuclear ambitions,” Cheong said.

“The possibility appears to be very low for North Korea to give up on carrying out its seventh nuclear test nor missile tests, just because it has omicron patients.”

By Jo He-rim (herim@heraldcorp.com)
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