Kim Jong-un has imposed a lockdown on the city of Kaesong – which is close to the border with South Korea – warning “the vicious virus” may now have infiltrated the secretive country, state media said on Sunday.
The patient will be North Korea’s first official coronavirus case if the authorities confirm they definitely have tested positive for the virus.
North Korea, which is one of the most secretive and isolated countries in the world, has firmly stated it has had no cases of people with coronavirus but the claims have been challenged by experts.
North Korea has announced a state of emergency and a lockdown in a border town after someone with suspected coronavirus illegally crossed the border with South Korea, according to the country’s state media.
The so-called hermit kingdom’s lockdown was announced on Friday afternoon – with the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) saying the suspected virus patient was a runaway who fled to South Korea three years ago before illegally crossing the border back into the North early last week.
KCNA said respiratory secretion and blood tests showed the person “is suspected to have been infected” with coronavirus. It said the person was placed under quarantine.
People who had been in contact with the suspected patient and those who had been to Kaesong in the last five days were also quarantined.
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.
However, the Kaesong lockdown is the first known measure taken in a North Korean city to curb coronavirus spreading.
Foreign experts say a coronavirus outbreak in North Korea could cause dire consequences because of its fragile public health care infrastructure and chronic lack of medical supplies. They are also sceptical about North Korea’s claim of having had no infections because the country shares a long, porous border with China, its biggest trading partner, where the world’s first known virus cases were reported in December.
Kaesong, a city with an estimated population of 200,000, is located just north of the heavily fortified land border with South Korea. It once hosted the Koreas’ jointly run industrial complex, which has been shut 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 on Saturday, Mr Jong-un 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 Mr Jong-un as saying there was “a critical situation in which the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country”. Mr Jong-un said he took “the preemptive measure of totally blocking Kaesong City and isolating each district and region from the other” on Friday afternoon after receiving the report on it, according to KCNA.
Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea, said a comprehensive lockdown in Kaesong would make it difficult for a potential virus outbreak to spread beyond the city. But he said virus fears would engulf North Korean leaders.
“The anxiety and fears about Covid-19 spreading in the North Korean leadership would be much bigger than outsiders can roughly speculate because the country lacks test kits and has virtually no facilities to treat virus patients,” Mr Seong-Chang said.
North Korea cancelled some big events and introduced a border lockdown and quarantine rules in a bid to prevent the spread of coronavirus earlier in the public health emergency.