Kim Jong Un has isolated the border city of Kaesong from the rest of North Korea because of coronavirus fears, marking the first time the secretive state has admitted the global pandemic has potentially breached its borders.
The North Korean dictator declared a state of emergency in the city — on the border with the South — and had taken measures “totally blocking Kaesong city and isolating each district and region from the other”, state news agency KCNA reported on Sunday.
International experts have warned that a coronavirus outbreak could devastate North Korea. Its healthcare system is incapable of handling a serious health crisis and suffers from a dearth of basic preventive equipment. Many of the country’s 25m people already suffer ill health.
According to the KCNA report, the potential transmission of Covid-19 has been blamed on a North Korean “runaway” who returned from South Korea on July 19.
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“As an uncertain result was made from several medical check-ups of the secretion of that person’s upper respiratory organ and blood, the person was put under strict quarantine as a primary step and all the persons in Kaesong city who contacted that person and those who have been to the city in the last five days are being thoroughly investigated, given medical examination and put under quarantine,” the KCNA report said.
Mr Kim, who held an emergency meeting with senior officials on Saturday, said “everyone needs to face up to the reality of emergency”. He ordered a “shift from the state emergency anti-epidemic system to the maximum emergency system”, according to the report. Officials also vowed to “administer a severe punishment” for the “loose guard performance” in the border area.
While it is rare for North Korean defectors to return from South Korea — raising some doubt over Pyongyang’s claims of the source of possible transmission — Seoul, which is typically wary of increasing tensions with Pyongyang, did not rule out the events.
“The military is looking into the detailed routes, seeing high chances of a certain person's border crossing into the North . . . Our military has specified some people and is verifying facts,” a South Korean official said on Sunday.
The decision to isolate the city marks a stark turnround after Mr Kim this month claimed a “shining success” in stopping coronavirus infections from sweeping through North Korea. Pyongyang’s reports of zero confirmed infections was met with international scepticism.
North Korea, however, has been credited by some experts for its comparatively early and decisive action to protect itself from the virus.
In January, Pyongyang severed most land, sea and air routes connecting it with China and Russia. The Kim regime also cracked down on internal trade and travel, as it sought to isolate itself from what was a rapidly deteriorating situation in Wuhan, China.
Still, North Korean watchers — including a US general and top Japanese officials — have made public their doubts over whether Pyongyang’s restrictions have been sufficient in stopping the spread of coronavirus into the country.
The World Health Organization, which has staff in Pyongyang and is assisting North Korean health officials, said this month that more than 1,000 people had been tested for the coronavirus. It said hundreds of people were being quarantined at both Nampo, a port city on the west coast, and Sinuiju, an important trade city that connects the country with China.
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