By Min Joo Kim
July 26, 2020 at 5:32 p.m. GMT+9 The Washington Post
SEOUL — North Korea locked down the city of Kaesong near the border with South Korea after finding what could be the country’s first official covid-19 case there, state media reported Sunday.
North Korea’s Central News Agency announced “a critical situation in which the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country” after a suspected patient returned from South Korea by illegally crossing the border last week.
Coronavirus test results were described as “uncertain” but the person was still put under quarantine while health officials launched an investigation on those who might have come in contact with the individual in Kaesong, the state media report said.
If confirmed, he or she would be North Korea’s first official covid-19 patient in a country that has remained “virus free” according to Pyongyang authorities.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un convened a Politburo meeting on Saturday over “the dangerous situation in Kaesong City that may lead to a deadly and destructive disaster,” state media said.
In the meeting, Kim declared a state of emergency over the Kaesong area and talked about lockdown measures there which were put in place late Friday shortly after the suspected case was reported.
A coronavirus outbreak would pose a significant threat to North Korea’s poor health system which lacks basic protective equipments and medical supplies. Mindful of the threat, the isolated country has sealed itself even further off from the outside world as the coronavirus has spread to areas near its border with China.
As early as January, the country shut down cross-border travels with China and Russia, although doing so severely limits its business with those countries. It has placed diplomats and foreigners in the country under effective house arrest, and restricted domestic travel.
More than 1,100 people in the country have been tested for the coronavirus as of July 9, the World Health Organization’s representative to Pyongyang was quoted as saying in NK News, a North Korea focused news outlet based in Seoul. The representative said all test results came out negative, while some six hundred North Korean nationals were under quarantine.
International aid organizations have provided covid-19 test kits and personal protective equipments to North Korea to assist its battle against the virus.
In the emergency Politburo meeting, leader Kim urged the officials to “face up to the reality of emergency,” and ordered the virus responses be elevated, a shift to “the maximum emergency system,” according to the state media report.
The meeting also discussed the lax performance of the guards along the part of the border where the suspected virus carrier crossed into North Korea and vowed to “administer a severe punishment and take necessary measures.”
The KCNA said the person in question had defected to the South three years ago.
More than 33,000 North Koreans have fled to the South since the early 1990s to escape poverty and political oppression. But it is rare for the defectors who settled in the South to head back north.
South Korea’s military said in a statement that its Joint Chiefs of Staff is inspecting the relevant surveillance recordings. “Along with related entities, we have identified and are currently reviewing cases of certain individuals based on specific timing and whereabouts,” the statement said.
Defection across the heavily armed inter-Korean border is extremely difficult. It is the world’s most fortified front line with land mines buried in the ground and armed soldiers standing watch.