The isolated country sealed itself off even more during the pandemic to prevent the coronavirus from being introduced. According to the official version, there was a suspected case around summer 2020, but almost no information on the actual situation until the state-owned Central Korean News Agency (KCNA) reported an initial outbreak on Thursday. Head of state Kim Jong Un announced nationwide lockdowns.
According to KCNA, samples from patients who fell ill with a fever in the capital Pyongyang on Sunday matched the highly contagious omicron variant BA.2. Kim then told an emergency Politburo meeting the country would implement a “maximum” quarantine protocol to contain the outbreak.
The aim is to “eliminate the root within the shortest possible time”. Kim added that North Korea “will surely overcome the emergency and win the emergency quarantine project because of the people’s high level of political awareness.”
Isolation measures and reports of panic buying
Kim called for stricter border controls and lockdown measures. According to the state news agency, he urged the authorities to “completely prevent the spread of the vicious virus by thoroughly sealing off their areas in all cities and counties across the country.”
All economic activities are organized in such a way that each production unit is “isolated” to prevent the spread of the disease. Seoul, South Korea-based NK News reported that areas in Pyongyang had been locked down for two days and there were reports of panic buying.
Healthcare system would probably be overwhelmed
The country, which was already isolated due to its political course and travel regulations, sealed itself off even more at the beginning of 2020 to protect itself from the pandemic. As of Thursday, North Korea had not confirmed a single case of Covid-19. It is questionable whether the country’s health system could handle a major virus outbreak.
North Korea borders countries that have had severe omicron outbreaks. In South Korea, however, the latest wave of infections has subsided sharply since March, and Seoul recently lifted almost all restrictions. China is fighting outbreaks in several provinces with tough lockdowns, and the economic metropolis of Shanghai has been sealed off for weeks.
indication of a major crisis
“For Pyongyang to publicly admit omicron cases, the health situation must be serious,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “Pyongyang is likely to step up lockdown measures, although the failure of China’s zero-Covid strategy suggests this approach will not work against the omicron variant.”
According to North Korea expert Cheong Seong Chang of the Sejong Institute, North Korea will try to avoid such strict measures as in Shanghai, where citizens are “virtually locked in their homes”. But even less stringent measures would result in “severe food shortages and the same chaos that China is facing now,” he said.
No information on vaccination status
Unlike neighboring countries, hardly anyone in the North Korean population has probably been vaccinated against the virus. On NK News it was said on Thursday, as good as nobody. North Korea had previously rejected vaccine offers from the World Health Organization (WHO), China and Russia.
Vaccine adoption under the WHO’s Covax program “requires transparency about how the vaccines are distributed,” said Go Myong Hyun, a researcher at South Korea’s think tank Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “That’s why North Korea rejected it.”