North Korea has declared a state of emergency after a person suspected of having coronavirus entered the country.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un convened an emergency politburo meeting after the person suspected of having COVID-19 entered from South Korea by illegally crossing the border this month, state media said on Sunday.
If confirmed, it would be the first case officially acknowledged by North Korean authorities, who have so far said the country has no confirmed cases of the disease.
Kim declared a state of emergency and imposed a lockdown on the border city of Kaesong, calling it a ‘critical situation in which the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country,’ state news agency KCNA reported.
According to KCNA, a person who defected to South Korea three years ago returned across the fortified border that divides the two Koreas with symptoms that suggested COVID-19.
‘An emergency event happened in Kaesong City where a runaway who went to the south three years ago, a person who is suspected to have been infected with the vicious virus returned on July 19 after illegally crossing the demarcation line,’ KCNA said.
KCNA did not specifically mention whether the individual had been tested, but said an ‘uncertain result was made from several medical check-ups of the secretion of that person’s upper respiratory organ and blood,’ prompting officials to quarantine the person and investigate anyone he may have been in contact with.
The unnamed person ‘was put under strict quarantine as a primary step and all the persons … who contacted that person and those who have been to the city in the last five days are being thoroughly investigated’ and quarantined, KCNA said.
To address the ‘dangerous situation … that may lead to a deadly and destructive disaster,’ North Korean leader Kim Jong Un convened the emergency politburo meeting on Saturday to adopt a ‘maximum emergency system and issue a top-class alert’ to contain the epidemic, KCNA said.
Despite strict preventative measures ‘the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country,’ Kim said, according to KCNA, and that the government took the ‘preemptive measure of totally blocking Kaesong City’ on July 24.
North Korea has received thousands of coronavirus testing kits from Russia and other countries, and imposed strict border closures, with the country being almost totally closed off since January 30.
Thousands of people in North Korea were quarantined, but restrictions had recently eased, however on Wednesday, it emerged that North Koreans will reportedly be subjected to three months of hard labour for not wearing Covid-19 face masks under tough new rules.
In July, Kim Jong Un ended a month-long absence from public view as he appeared at a meeting of the country’s political bureau, during which he praised North Korea’s ‘shining success’ in fighting coronavirus.
Kim has been seen in public only a handful of times this year amid speculation of poor health, or that he is trying to avoid catching coronavirus, which observers believe has been spreading widely in North Korea for some time despite the official denials.
State media said that Kim used an early-July meeting to urge officials to stay vigilant in the fight against coronavirus, warning of an ‘unimaginable and irretrievable crisis’ if they become complacent.
But he also praised vigilance which he claimed has so-far ‘thoroughly prevented the inroad of the malignant virus’ despite the worldwide health crisis.
Describing its anti-virus efforts as a ‘matter of national existence,’ North Korea earlier this year shut down nearly all cross-border traffic, banned tourists and mobilized health workers to quarantine anyone with symptoms.
Experts say the country’s self-imposed lockdown is hurting an economy already battered by stringent U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
In recent weeks, North Korea has also stepped up a campaign criticizing defectors to South Korea as ‘human scum’ and calling for South Korea to crack down on groups that send propaganda messages and food aid into the North.
Kim ordered an investigation into the military units along the border where the person was suspected of crossing to ‘administer a severe punishment and take necessary measures.’
In February, as the coronavirus crisis was beginning to take hold around the globe, a North Korean official was reportedly executed for going to a public bath while he was meant to be in quarantine.
The trade official was arrested and immediately shot after risking the spread of coronavirus by visiting the public bath, South Korea’s Dong-a Ilbo newspaper reported.
The official had been placed in isolation after travelling to China, with Kim Jong Un imposing military law to enforce the lockdown, sources at the time said.
Meanwhile, South Korea reported 113 new coronavirus cases on Saturday, the largest single-day increase in almost four months, and officials warned the upward trajectory could continue as people carrying the disease enter the country from abroad.
More than three-quarters of the latest reported infections were imported, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.
‘Everyday, we feel sense of crisis that COVID-19 pandemic may have not yet peaked yet,’ KCDC deputy director Kwon Jun-wook told a briefing.
South Korea has reported a total of 14,092 cases and 298 deaths from the pandemic. Saturday’s 113 infections was the highest since March 31.
Around 16% of all the country’s infections have been imported, with around 70% of those Korean nationals.
Two South Korean military aircraft arrived from Iraq on Friday, carrying 293 workers who were evacuated as cases swelled in that country.
Kwon said on Saturday that 71 of those people were infected with COVID-19 and a further 11 people were being reexamined.
‘It´s likely that there will be similar cases like this Iraq case anywhere in the world, and (South Korea) will repeat the same measure, so we urge people to factor that in when looking at figures of the confirmed cases,’ Kwon said.
A large number of crew members on a Russian ship have also tested positive, Kwon said.