North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered a strict national lockdown after a COVID-19 outbreak was confirmed in Pyongyang, the capital, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Thursday. These are the first cases of COVID-19 acknowledged by North Korea during the two-year pandemic, though most outside experts doubted that the isolated nation had evaded the virus completely.
Kim called an emergency meeting of the Politburo to discuss the outbreak, and ordered cities and counties to be locked down and workplaces to be isolated by unit to prevent spread of the coronavirus, KCNA said, The news agency did not say how big the outbreak is or how serious. Few of North Korea's 26 million residents are believed to be vaccinated since Kim rejected vaccine offers from China and the United Nations–backed COVAX distribution program.
"For Pyongyang to publicly admit omicron cases, the public health situation must be serious," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at South Korea's Ewha Womans University. "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. But 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."
North Korea avoided large outbreaks earlier in the pandemic by sealing its border, though it began cross-border railroad freight trade with China in January. China halted trade again in April after COVID-19 broke out in Liaoning province, on North Korea's border.
With North Korea's acknowledged outbreak, very few countries are left that have reported no COVID-19 cases, The Associated Press reports, including Turkmenistan, though its claim of being COVID-free is also widely doubted, and a handful of Pacific Island nations, including Tuvalu, population 12,000.