North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was seen wearing a face mask in public for the first time on Thursday as North Korea acknowledged its first coronavirus cases of the pandemic.
China said it was ready to provide Pyongyang with its “full support” as an outbreak with potentially far-reaching consequences brews along its northeast border. North Korea’s 26 million people are thought to be largely unvaccinated.
Kim chaired a Politburo meeting of the country’s ruling Workers’ Party, in which North Korea announced positive COVID cases for the first time more than two years since the virus emerged in China. State broadcaster Korean Central Television showed the leader entering the room wearing a mask, which he later took off in order to speak.
“A most serious emergency case of the state occurred,” the Korean Central News Agency reported. The infections were confirmed as the highly transmissible Omicron BA.2 variant following testing of fever patients in Pyongyang on Sunday, the state-run news service said.
“Informed at the meeting was the spread state in the whole country. Urgent measures were presented and deliberated to take the strategic initiative in the epidemic prevention campaign for the future,” said KCNA. The exact number of the North’s cases was unclear.
The country’s COVID measures were elevated to a state of “maximum emergency,” KCNA reported. Kim ordered all cities and counties to “thoroughly lock down.”
The gathering of top leaders was also carried by party paper Rodong Sinmun, which said the COVID outbreak was the second item on the meeting’s agenda. The Politburo “censured the epidemic prevention sectors for their carelessness, relaxation, irresponsibility and inefficiency,” the newspaper said.
Kim, meanwhile, urged calm. “Pointing out that more dangerous enemy of us than the malicious virus are unscientific fear, lack of faith and weak will, he affirmed that we will surely overcome the current sudden situation and win victory in the emergency epidemic prevention work,” he was quoted as saying.
WHO data showed only 64,207 people had been tested for COVID in North Korea as of the end of March. All had returned negative. Prior to the confirmed cases over the weekend, it was one of the few countries to have survived the pandemic without reporting any infections.
The UN agency’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said last November that the country was one of only two in the world that hadn’t begun a vaccination campaign. Both the Chinese government and the WHO-backed vaccine-sharing initiative COVAX had pledged shots to Pyongyang in 2021, but the offers were declined.
Experts fear a COVID outbreak among the North’s 26 million people could be devastating because of an existing food crisis that has left large sections of the population malnourished. Shipments of medicines and medical equipment, including those for treating COVID patients, are currently barred under UN sanctions.
Kim ordered the party to mobilized “reserve medical supplies” as part of the anti-virus campaign, said Rodong.
Pyongyang has maintained its own zero-COVID measures throughout the pandemic. These have included strict border controls that at times required the suspension of overland trade routes from China.
As of this week, the Chinese provinces of Liaoning and Jilin, both bordering North Korea, were both still reporting positive COVID cases daily, although the numbers were declining from weeks earlier.
At a regular Chinese Foreign Ministry press conference in Beijing, spokesperson Zhao Lijian said China “empathizes” with Pyongyang’s COVID situation.
“As a comrade, neighbor and friend, China stands ready to provide full support to North Korea in its fight against the epidemic,” he said.