HONG KONG — North Korea is raising its anti-epidemic measures to the maximum level, state media reported Thursday, as it confirmed its first coronavirus infection after claiming to be virus-free since the start of the pandemic.
Tests of samples collected on Sunday from an unspecified number of people with fevers in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, confirmed that they were infected with the omicron variant of the virus, the Korean Central News Agency reported, calling it “a most serious emergency case of the state.” Leader Kim Jong Un has called for all cities and counties in the country to be locked down in response, it said.
North Korea’s insistence that it had no virus cases has been met with great skepticism internationally, and experts said its admission now suggested the situation was serious.
“It’s definitely likely that they’ve had Covid before, so I guess the main question is why are they saying it now?” said Dominique Fraser, a Sydney-based research associate at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
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North Korea has refused multiple vaccine offers from the Covax global vaccine-sharing program, as well as China, Russia and South Korea, and its 26 million people are believed to be mostly unprotected against the virus.
At a Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party on Thursday, Kim said individual work units should be isolated and disinfection efforts intensified to prevent the virus from spreading, saying North Korea would “surely overcome the current sudden situation.” He said anti-epidemic measures should not affect economic work or national defense and that officials should “minimize inconveniences.”
The party’s top leaders “censured the epidemic prevention sectors for their carelessness, relaxation, irresponsibility and inefficiency,” the news agency said.
Given the high transmissibility of the omicron variant, North Korea is likely to be on the verge of a full-brown outbreak, said Dr. Jung Jae-hun, a professor in the College of Medicine at Gachon University in South Korea.
“I think it will not end with one case,” he said.
Though omicron has been found elsewhere in the world to have a lower fatality rate than other variants of the virus, Jung said, that is partly because of vaccinations and immunity acquired from past infections, as well as the availability of quality health care.
“But in the case of North Korea, few people have acquired immunity from infection,” if its lack of cases is to be believed, he said. “So I think the damage will be very serious in North Korea.”
North Korea has taken the coronavirus “very seriously” since the start of the pandemic, Fraser said, shutting its borders completely and halting almost all trade with China, its most important trade partner, until recently. The measures were a further shock to an economy already hampered by decades of mismanagement and U.S.-led sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile program.
Fraser said an outbreak could dash North Koreans’ hopes for the further resumption of trade, worsening food shortages that Kim already warned about last year.
“It’s terrifying for the food situation there,” she said. “The grain stocks are really low, they haven’t had any cereal imports in 2022. Last year’s harvest was OK, but there’s already people that are foraging in the forests to look for food and there’s people that only eat once a day.”
Fraser said North Korea was likely to further tighten Covid restrictions in what she described as a “China-plus” approach, referring to a policy even stricter than the ongoing lockdown in Shanghai.
“I think they’ll have the stomach to see them through for quite a long time, with potentially very bad outcomes for the population,” she said.
A number of countries did not report their first virus cases until well into the pandemic, especially remote island nations in the Pacific, at least one of which — Tuvalu — is still Covid-free, according to the World Health Organization. The autocratic Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan also claims to have recorded zero cases, though outside experts are skeptical.