Describing its anti-virus efforts as a “matter of national existence,” North Korea earlier this year shut down nearly all cross-border traffic, banned foreign tourists and mobilised health workers to quarantine anyone with symptoms. But the Kaesong lockdown is the first such known measure taken in a North Korean city to stem the pandemic.
Foreign experts say a coronavirus outbreak in North Korea could cause dire consequences because of its poor public health care infrastructure and chronic lack of medical supplies.
Kaesong, a city with an estimated 200,000 people, is located just north of the heavily fortified land border with South Korea. It once hosted the Koreas’ jointly run industrial complex, which remains stalled since 2016 amid nuclear tensions. Last month, North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong to protest a campaign by South Korean activists who have been sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border.
During an emergency Politburo meeting Saturday, Kim also declared a state of emergency in the Kaesong area and “clarified the determination of the Party Central Committee to shift from the state emergency anti-epidemic system to the maximum emergency system and issue a top-class alert,” KCNA said.
It quoted Kim as saying that there was “a critical situation in which the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country.” Kim said he took “the preemptive measure of totally blocking Kaesong City and isolating each district and region from the other within July 24 afternoon just after receiving the report on it,” according to KCNA.
The Politburo meeting also discussed the “loose guard performance” at the border area where the suspected case crossed over to North Korea.
KCNA said that Kim and other leaders were briefed on the results of an intensive investigation of a military unit responsible for the border crossing case and discussed administering “a severe punishment.”
More than 33,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea over the past 20 years to avoid poverty and political suppression, mostly via the long, porous border with China. Buy it’s rare for North Korean refugees to return to their homeland by crossing the mine-strewn inter-Korean border.
The South Korean government has no immediate comments on the North Korean announcement.
“Blaming an alleged return defector for bringing COVID-19 into the country is likely intended to shift blame for spread of the virus away from China and Pyongyang and on to Seoul,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said.
“This may also be a tactic for ratcheting up diplomatic pressure on [South Korea] and trying to further dissuade North Koreans from defecting to the South,” he said.
One analyst said the announcement was important, not only because North Korea was for the first time reporting a suspected coronavirus case but also because it suggested it was appealing for help.
“It’s an ice-breaking moment for North Korea to admit a case,” said Choo Jae-woo, a professor at Kyung Hee University.
“It could be reaching out to the world for help. Perhaps for humanitarian assistance.”
North Korea is under huge economic pressure because of international sanctions over its nuclear programme.
Cho Han-bum, a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said it was significant that North Korea was reporting its first suspected coronavirus case was imported.
“North Korea is in such a dire situation, where they can’t even finish building the Pyongyang General Hospital on time. Pointing the blame at an ‘imported case’ from South Korea, the North can use this as a way to openly accept aid from the South,” Cho said.
AP, with Reuters