North Korea admits its first Covid cases
North Korea has identified its first ever cases of Covid-19.
A report Thursday by state-run news agency Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) said that cases of the Omicron variant had been found in the capital Pyongyang. North Korea has not previously acknowledged any cases.
According to KCNA, samples collected from a group of people experiencing flu-like symptoms and fevers on Sunday tested positive for the highly contagious Omicron variant.
In response, the regime declared a “state of maximum anti-disease measures,” with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordering strict restrictions on the movement of people in all cities and counties on Thursday and the distribution of medical supplies stockpiled in case of a Covid-19 emergency, KCNA reported.
While North Korea repeatedly said since January 2020 that the country had detected zero cases of Covid-19 within its borders, its claims were doubted by outside observers.
In December 2020, the regime went so far as to blast South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha for saying it was “hard to believe” there were no Covid-19 cases in North Korea, calling the remark “impudent.”
Pyongyang has nevertheless prevented a major Covid-19 outbreak with extreme measures to seal itself off, including shutting its land borders with China, over which the bulk of the country’s trade is conducted.
Experts believe that the decision to go public with the discovery of Omicron infections could signal a desire for vaccine aid.
As recently as January, North Korea rejected, or responded in a lukewarm manner, to offers of vaccine support from various institutions.
Although the North was assigned 8.11 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines in March by the Covax Facility, the World Health Organization-led global Covid-19 vaccine-sharing mechanism, most of these were AstraZeneca vaccines, which apparently weren't appreciated in Pyongyang.
Last July, Gavi, the global public-private health partnership that increases poorer countries' access to immunization, said that North Korea was not complying with the administrative steps required for the delivery of Covax-allocated vaccines.
“The North Korean Ambassador to the UN Kim Song is said to have asked the UN what type of vaccines the organization was thinking of supporting Pyongyang with,” said a source. “He is said to have asked if it was going to be Pfizer or Moderna.”
Meanwhile, the ruling Korean Workers’ Party Politburo blamed the country’s anti-disease headquarters for “carelessness, laxity, irresponsibility and incompetence” in allowing the outbreak in Pyongyang, saying it “failed to respond sensitively” to rising Covid-19 cases in neighboring regions.
China, with which the North resumed rail trade earlier this year, is experiencing outbreaks of Covid-19 in major cities, with Shanghai under a weeks-long lockdown and Beijing faced with the prospect of similar restrictions.
BY MICHAEL LEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]