North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered a nationwide lockdown Thursday to try to contain a highly transmissible variant of coronavirus that causes COVID-19, which was confirmed in the country this week for the first time.
The official Korean Central News Agency said genetic sequencing analysis of samples collected from a group of people on Sunday in Pyongyang had identified the BA.2 strain, also known as the “stealth omicron” for its relative difficulty of detection.
At least one person confirmed to have COVID-19 has died, KCNA said Friday, and around 350,000 people have shown signs of a fever that has “explosively spread nationwide” since late April. About 162,200 of them have been treated so far, but it did not specify how many had tested positive for COVID-19.
North Korea has maintained a strict border closure since February 2020 and instituted its own quarantine measures amid the pandemic, which have now officially been breached.
BA.2 became the world’s dominant strain in March, the World Health Organization said. It was also responsible for driving up infections in South Korea to highs unseen before. In late April, North Korea closed its rail line into China’s border city of Dandong after it registered a spike in COVID-19 cases.
The detection of omicron and Pyongyang’s public admission of it came as North Korea remains one of the last remaining countries yet to run a vaccination program for its 26 million people.
And given that its medical system still significantly lags behind those of its Asian neighbors, observers say it appeared unlikely that Pyongyang would shift from its yearslong stance of rejecting vaccine help and stick to its only allowable option of a border closure.
‘A most serious emergency’
Kim was seen wearing a mask for the first time at Thursday’s early morning politburo meeting, which he took off only when addressing his masked aides.
He ordered a “thorough lockdown” in all cities and counties, KCNA said. He directed businesses and construction projects to continue to operate but in isolation to “perfectly block” the spread of the virus.
“They only have one option: simply lock down their country and try to prevent the spread of the omicron virus,” Park Won-gon, professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told VOA. “Because North Korea doesn’t have simple medicines, much less a medical system comparable to other countries, even if they had the vaccines, they would not be able to stop omicron.”
Park doesn’t think North Korea will be looking to solicit vaccines from outside parties; what it really wants is a simple cure, which the world has yet to develop more than two years into the pandemic.
North Korea will institute draconian measures to those of its biggest ally, China, if not even more severe, Park predicted.
Based on several studies conducted on the contingency of North Korea, Park said, there was a single scenario that would incite a people’s uprising, and possibly the regime’s collapse: a pandemic paired with extreme economic difficulty. “That is why, for more than two years, North Korea has been very sensitive and serious about this pandemic, even at the deep economic cost of closing its border with China.”
North Korea is already dealing with a difficult rice planting season, an important time on the socialist state’s calendar, challenged by droughtlike conditions and a shortage of necessities such as fertilizer. Even prior to the pandemic’s official entrance to the country, the state had relocated office workers and laborers to its agricultural regions to assist in building trenches for water transport, according to the official newspaper Rodong Sinmun.
The movement restrictions set to be enacted could complicate the effort, Park said, in a country that has chronically experienced the shortage of food. “It will definitely have a huge negative impact on their food supply in the near future.”
Still, Kim, in Thursday’s politburo meeting, said more dangerous than the virus were “unscientific fear, lack of faith and weak will” as he expressed confidence in the people’s ability to organize and get behind a cause.
Some information for this report came from Reuters.