SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea imposed a nationwide lockdown Thursday to control its first recognized COVID-19 outbreak after holding out for more than two years on a widely questioned claim of a perfect folder to prevent the virus which has spread to almost every place in the world.
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The outbreak forced leader Kim Jong Un to wear a mask in public, likely for the first time since the pandemic began, but the extent of transmissions inside North Korea was not immediately known. . A failure to slow infections could have serious consequences as the country has a poor healthcare system and its 26 million people are said to be mostly unvaccinated. Some experts say North Korea, through its rare admission of an outbreak, may seek outside help.
However, hours after North Korea confirmed the outbreak, the South Korean military said it detected that the North had fired three suspected ballistic missiles towards the sea. This was its 16th series of launches. missiles this year, aimed at forcing the United States to accept North Korea as a nuclear power and to negotiate sanctions relief and other concessions from a position of strength.
The official Korean Central News Agency said tests of virus samples taken on Sunday from an unknown number of people with fever in the capital, Pyongyang, confirmed they were infected with the omicron variant.
In response, Kim called at a ruling party Politburo meeting for a full lockdown of cities and counties and said workplaces should be isolated by units to prevent the virus from spreading. He urged health workers to step up disinfection efforts at workplaces and homes and mobilize reserve medical supplies.
Kim said it was crucial to control transmissions and eliminate the source of infection as quickly as possible, while mitigating public inconvenience caused by virus checks. He insisted that the country will overcome the epidemic because its government and people are “united as one”.
Despite the high virus response, Kim ordered officials to press ahead with planned construction, agricultural development and other state projects while strengthening the country’s defense posture to avoid a security vacuum.
North Korean state television showed Kim and other senior officials wearing masks as they entered a meeting room, although Kim removed his mask to speak into a set of microphones. Still photos distributed by KNCA showed Kim unmasked and seated at the head of a table where all other officials remained masked.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, could not immediately confirm whether this was the first time state media showed Kim wearing a mask since the pandemic began. . Kim has already spoken to huge crowds without a mask as he praised the country’s previous response to the pandemic, and his decision to be seen wearing a mask could be aimed at heightening public vigilance.
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North Korea, which has maintained strict virus checks at its borders for more than two years, did not provide further details on its new lockdown. But an Associated Press photographer on the South Korean side of the border saw dozens of people working in the fields or walking on the paths of a North Korean border town – an indication that the lockdown does not force the people to stay at home, or it exempts agricultural work.
Measures described in state media and Kim’s statement that economic targets still need to be met could indicate North Korea is more focused on restricting travel and supplies between regions, the analyst said. Cheong Seong-Chang from the Sejong Institute in South Korea.
The North Korean government has shunned vaccines offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly because they have international monitoring requirements.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry said South Korea is willing to provide medical and other aid to North Korea based on humanitarian considerations. Relations between the Koreas have deteriorated since 2019 amid a stalemate in nuclear negotiations and increasingly provocative weapons testing by the North.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Beijing was offering help to North Korea to deal with the outbreak. North Korea has reportedly rejected previous Chinese offers of vaccines developed in the country.
Kim Sin-gon, a professor at Korea University College of Medicine in Seoul, said North Korea was likely signaling a willingness to receive outside vaccines, but wanted many more doses than those offered by COVAX to inoculate its entire population. population several times. He said North Korea would also want shipments of COVID-19 medicines and medical equipment that are banned under UN sanctions.
Omicron spreads much more easily than earlier variants of the coronavirus, and its death and hospitalization rates are high among unvaccinated older people or those with existing health conditions. That means the outbreak could cause “a serious situation” as North Korea lacks medical equipment and medicine to treat patients infected with the virus and many of its people are not well fed, Kim Sin- said. go.
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Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website focused on health issues in North Korea, said North Korea’s admission of the outbreak is likely designed to push its people harder to protect against the virus as China, which shares a long and porous border with the North, has placed several of its cities under lockdown due to virus concerns.
North Korea will also likely emphasize lockdowns, though experience with China’s “zero-COVID” policy suggests that approach doesn’t work against the rapidly evolving omicron variant, Leif-Eric said. Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. .
“For Pyongyang to publicly admit omicron cases, the public health situation must be serious,” Easley said. “That doesn’t mean North Korea will suddenly open up to humanitarian aid and take a more conciliatory line toward Washington and Seoul. But the Kim regime’s domestic audience may be less interested in nuclear or missile testing. when the urgent threat involves coronavirus rather than a foreign military.
North Korea’s previous coronavirus-free claim had been disputed by many foreign experts. But South Korean officials said North Korea likely avoided a huge outbreak, in part because it instituted strict virus controls almost from the start of the pandemic.
In early 2020 – before the coronavirus spread around the world – North Korea took tough measures to keep the virus out and described them as a matter of “national existence”. It virtually halted cross-border traffic and trade for two years, and reportedly even ordered troops to shoot on sight any intruders who crossed its borders.
The extreme border closures have further shocked an economy already damaged by decades of US mismanagement and sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile program, pushing Kim into perhaps the most difficult moment of his rule since he took power in 2011.
North Korea was one of the last places in the world without a recognized COVID-19 case after the virus first detected in China’s central city of Wuhan in late 2019 spread to every continent, including Antarctica. Turkmenistan, an equally secretive and authoritarian nation in Central Asia, has not reported any cases to the World Health Organization, although its claim is also widely doubted by outside experts.
In recent months, some Pacific island nations that kept the virus out through their geographic isolation have recorded outbreaks. So far, only tiny Tuvalu, with a population of around 12,000, has escaped the virus, while a few other countries – Nauru, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands – have halted cases at their borders and avoided outbreaks. community epidemics.
North Korea’s outbreak comes as China – its close ally and trading partner – battles its biggest outbreak of the pandemic.
In January, North Korea tentatively reopened rail freight traffic between its border city of Sinuiju and China’s Dandong for the first time in two years, but China halted trade last month due to an outbreak in China. Liaoning Province, which borders North Korea.
Associated Press reporters Lee Jin-man in Paju, South Korea, Ken Moritsugu in Beijing and Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand, contributed to this report.