North Korea Reports First COVID Outbreak

North Korea has acknowledged its first COVID outbreak, declaring a ‘maximum emergency’ and ordering the entire country into lockdown. The state news agency has reported six deaths and hundreds of thousands of cases.

After announcing the outbreak on Thursday, the country’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) has now said signs of “fever” have been observed in about 350,000 people. 187,000 are being treated in isolation, and six have already perished.

The latest state update says the outbreak began in late April; its spread is unsurprising given Pyongyang’s massive military parade held at the end of last month. The thousands of attendees and participants did not appear to be wearing masks and were not socially distancing.

April’s military parade now seems likely to have been a super-spreader event.

North Korea completely shut its borders in February of 2020, not even allowing Chinese cargo trains into their territory. This ban on Chinese imports was only lifted earlier this year, but South Korean intelligence suggests it has been re-imposed.

Paranoia around the virus breaching North Korean borders has been vigorously enforced. In 2020, Pyongyang declared a national emergency when a South Korean man defected to the North, for fear he may have carried COVID in. Also that year, North Korean troops allegedly shot a South Korean official attempting to defect, and burned his body, again due to virus anxieties.

Kim Jong-un has maintained his country has not experienced a single case of COVID until now, though analysts are sceptical North Korea has been able to entirely avoid the virus.

But on Thursday, the dictator called a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party Politburo to discuss the unfolding crisis. Kim walked into the conference room with a mask – the first time he’s been pictured on national TV wearing one, though he took it off to speak.

North Korea is now reporting 20,000 cases a day.

North Korea Unprepared for Pandemic

The reason this outbreak is so concerning to many is the unvaccinated status of the majority of North Korea’s population. North Korea is one of only two countries that do not have any sort of COVID vaccination program in place (alongside Eritrea). Kim has refused vaccine donations from both China and international health initiatives like Covax, leaving North Korea’s population of 26 million vulnerable.

The North Korean healthcare system is threadbare, and entirely unequipped to deal with the crisis. The Global Health Security Index currently has North Korea tied for 193rd out of 195 countries for capacity to deal with pandemics. Yemen shares its second-last spot, with only Somalia faring worse.

Furthermore, North Koreans have been suffering from food shortages and malnutrition over the past two years. Their economy was crippled by the moratorium on imports and COVID supply chain issues, and droughts and floods have stretched domestic supplies dangerously thin. To say citizens are not in the best shape to fight the virus is an understatement.

North Korean analyst Cheong Seong-chang believes that failure to control this outbreak could lead to “a serious food crisis and the kind of great confusion we have seen in China recently.”

KCNA reported Kim had ordered “all the cities and counties of the whole country to thoroughly lock down their areas​.” He called for all ‘living’, ‘production’ and ‘working units’ to be kept separate from each other, and for increased vigilance at all borders and points of entry into the country.

Specialist Leif-Eric Easley says for Pyongyang to admit a health crisis, the situation must be very serious. He believes that if Kim’s ‘signature measures’ of strict control fail, “it could be a blow to regime legitimacy.”

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