North Korea admits to Covid outbreak for first time and declares ‘severe national emergency’

North Korea has declared a “severe national emergency” after confirming its first outbreak of Covid-19, prompting its leader, Kim Jong-un, to vow to quickly eliminate the virus.

State media reported on Thursday that a sub-variant of the highly transmissible Omicron virus, known as BA.2, had been detected in the capital, Pyongyang.

“There has been the biggest emergency incident in the country, with a hole in our emergency quarantine front, that has been kept safely over the past two years and three months since February 2020,” the official KCNA news agency said.

The report said people in Pyongyang had contracted the Omicron variant, without providing details on case numbers or possible sources of infection.

North Korea had claimed it had not recorded a single case of Covid-19 since it closed its borders at the start of the pandemic more than two years ago.

The discovery of the Omicron variant presents a potentially serious risk to North Korea, which has not vaccinated any of its 25 百万人, according to experts, and its poorly resourced healthcare system would also struggle to cope with a major outbreak.

The country so far has shunned vaccines offered by the UN-backed Covax distribution programme, possibly because administering the jabs would require international monitoring.

The Seoul-based NK News reported that areas of Pyongyang had been in lockdown for two days. “Multiple sources have also heard reports of panic buying due to uncertainty of when the lockdown might end,“ 它说, citing sources in the city.

The KCNA report said samples taken from patients in Pyongyang who had developed fevers were “consistent with” the Omicron variant.

The discovery prompted Kim to call a crisis meeting of the Workers’ party politburo, where officials said they would implement “maximum” emergency measures.

They reportedly include tighter border controls and lockdown measures, with Kim telling citizens “to completely block the spread of the malicious virus by thoroughly blocking their areas in all cities and counties across the country”.

All business and production activities will be organised so each work unit is “isolated” to prevent the spread of disease, KCNA said.

Kim told the meeting that “the goal was to eliminate the root within the shortest period of time”, it added.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the regime’s public acknowledgment of coronavirus cases meant “the public health situation must be serious”.

“This does not mean North Korea is suddenly going to be open to humanitarian assistance and take a more conciliatory line toward Washington and Seoul,“ 他说.

Easley said the presence of the virus could affect any plans the leadership has for missile or nuclear tests.

“The Kim regime’s domestic audience may be less interested in nuclear or missile tests when the urgent threat involves coronavirus rather than a foreign military,“ 他说. “The Kim regime would be well advised to swallow its pride and quickly seek donations of vaccines and therapeutics.”

North Korea closed its borders to nearly all trade and visitors at the start of the pandemic, inflicting more pain on an economy already damaged by decades of mismanagement and international sanctions over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.

It tentatively reopened railroad freight traffic with China in January, but Chinese authorities halted trade last month after a Covid-19 outbreak in Dandong, a city close to the border with North Korea.