North Korea is sounding the alarm after confirming first COVID-19 case

SEOUL – North Korea on Thursday announced its first coronavirus infection more than two years after the pandemic began, as leader Kim Jong Un called for preventive measures against COVID-19 to be boosted to the maximum.

Korea’s official North Central News Agency said testing of an unspecified number of people with fevers in the capital Pyongyang confirmed they were infected with the Omicron variant. North Korea had previously claimed a perfect record in repelling COVID-19, a claim widely disputed by outside experts.

The country’s 26 million people are believed to be mostly unvaccinated after the government shunned vaccines being offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution programme, possibly because they are subject to international surveillance requirements.

KCNA said Kim called a meeting of the Politburo of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, where members decided to increase their anti-virus measures. During the meeting, Kim urged officials to stabilize transmissions and eliminate the source of infection as soon as possible.


Despite the decision to step up anti-virus measures, Kim ordered officials to press ahead with planned construction, agricultural development and other government projects while strengthening the country’s defense posture to avoid a security vacuum.

Kim said officials must also formulate steps to alleviate public discomfort and other negative situations that may flare up as a result of increased measures to combat the pandemic. Kim said that “the single-minded public unity is the strongest guarantee that can win in this fight against the pandemic,” KCNA said.

North Korea’s announcement of the infections came after NK News, a North Korea-aligned news site, quoted unidentified sources as saying authorities had imposed a lockdown on Pyongyang residents. The South Korean government said it could not confirm the report.

North Korea was one of the last places in the world without a recognized virus case. Turkmenistan, a similarly secretive and authoritarian nation in Central Asia, has not reported any cases to the World Health Organization, although its claim has also been strongly disputed by outside experts. In recent months, some Pacific island nations that have kept the virus at bay through their geographical isolation have recorded outbreaks.


Experts say a major COVID-19 outbreak would be devastating due to North Korea’s poor healthcare system and, combined with other issues such as serious food shortages, could potentially trigger instability.

North Korea’s previous claim for coronavirus freedom has been disputed by many foreign experts. South Korean officials, however, said North Korea likely avoided a major outbreak, in part because it implemented tight virus controls almost from the start of the pandemic.

In early 2020 – before the coronavirus spread across the world – North Korea took strict steps to keep the virus out, describing them as a matter of “national existence”. It has quarantined people with symptoms similar to COVID-19 and all but halted cross-border movement and trade for two years. It is even believed to have ordered troops to shoot any intruder who crossed its borders on the spot.

The extreme border closures further shocked an economy already battered by decades of mismanagement and crippling US-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile programs, and propelled Kim into perhaps the most difficult moment of his rule since he took power in 2011.


North Korea tentatively resumed rail freight services between its border city of Sinuiju and China’s Dandong in January, but China last month announced a halt to trade as it deals with a spread of COVID-19 in Dandong.

It is unusual for North Korea to admit an outbreak of an infectious disease, although Kim has occasionally spoken openly about national and social problems and political failures.

During a flu pandemic in 2009, when the country was ruled by his father Kim Jong Il, North Korea said nine people in Pyongyang and the northwestern border city of Sinuiju had contracted the flu. Some outside experts said at the time that the admission was aimed at attracting outside help.

Experts say that amid the ongoing nuclear diplomacy standoff, Kim Jong Un has still not publicly asked for help, including COVID-19 vaccines from the United States and South Korea.

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Joel McCord

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