The Koreas | Society | East Asia

North Korea Confirms Omicron Case, Raising Fears of a COVID Catastrophe

China’s example raises serious questions about how North Korea can possibly hope to combat the virus.

North Korea Confirms Omicron Case, Raising Fears of a COVID Catastrophe
Credit: Depositphotos

For the first time, North Korea has confirmed a positive COVID-19 case within the country. The state-run Korean Central News Agency reported on May 12 that a “specimen from persons with fever” in Pyongyang had come back positive for the Omicron BA.2 variant, a particularly contagious strain of the virus. The phrasing of the announcement makes it unclear how many people are infected.

KCNA called the development a “most serious emergency case of the state.”

Before the public admission, North Korea-focused media outlets had already been noting unexplained lockdowns in Pyongyang. On May 10, NK News, citing sources in the North Korean capital, reported that residents “were abruptly ordered indoors on Tuesday afternoon” due to a “nationwide lockdown.” COVID-19 was not specific as the cause, but it was an obvious inference.

“North Korean authorities apparently instructed citizens not to go outside their buildings and did not specify when the order would be reversed, a source said,” NK News continued at the time.

In a follow-up report on May 11, NK News noted that sources in Pyongyang said the lockdown was still in effect, but North Korean state media had yet to report on it.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In its official confirmation, KCNA said the Omicron variant was first detected on May 8 – four days before state media announced it, but before the lockdown began in Pyongyang. The delay, as well as North Korea’s general history of ignoring inconvenient news, suggests that Pyongyang resisted making the news of a positive case public until it had no choice.

“For Pyongyang to publicly admit Omicron cases, the public health situation must be serious,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, told the Associated Press.

North Korea has taken extreme measures to try to prevent COVID-19 from entering its borders. All cross-border trade was halted at North Korea’s instigation in February 2020, as the extent of the pandemic became clear. Those restrictions took a brutal toll on North Korea’s economy.

The decision to tentatively reopen trade with China in January 2022 was likely taken out of desperation. China is a key source of basic necessities for North Korea, from flour and cooking oil to the fertilizer and machine parts necessary for North Korea to grow its own food. However, the decision to resume trade may also have resulted in exactly what North Korea most feared: a COVID-19 outbreak that has spiraled out of control.

Dandong, a city on the China-North Korea border that serves as a major hub for their bilateral trade, has been experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak. In late April, Dandong went into lockdown, and China announced that it was shutting down railway freight traffic with North Korea.

North Korea seems to suspect that the virus entered from China. KCNA reported that the Politburo, with Kim Jong Un presiding, “censured the epidemic prevention sectors for their carelessness, relaxation, irresponsibility and inefficiency as they did not sensitively cope with the public health state which infectors of all kinds of variants are increasing worldwide including surrounding regions of our country.”

In response to the outbreak, the Politburo said North Korea would implement a “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system.” Specifically, Kim Jong Un “called on all the cities and counties of the whole country to thoroughly lock down their areas and organize work and production after closing each working unit, production unit and living unit from each other so as to flawlessly and perfectly block the spread vacuum of the malicious virus.”

At the same time, Kim demanded that the lockdown not interfere with economic activity, saying “there should be nothing missed in the planned economic work.” In fact, just after ordering the lockdown Kim emphasized that North Koreans must “speed up the immediate farming work and the production at major industrial sectors and industrial establishments” in order to keep landmark projects on schedule.

Journalists flocked to North Korea’s borders with China and South Korea to peer across, reporting that North Koreans in the border towns appeared to be moving about and working in fields as usual.

Kim also emphasized that, lockdown or no lockdown, North Korea would be further strengthening “guard duty” on its land and sea borders. As The Diplomat’s Mitch Shin reported today, North Korea conducted a round of missile tests on Thursday, a signal that its defense programs are continuing as usual despite the pandemic emergency.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Given the numerous carve-outs and exceptions Kim mentioned, it’s unclear what North Korea’s lockdown will actually look like in practice. China is one of the few countries in the world to attempt full-on lockdowns of major cities, with all residents confined to their homes for a period of time (usually over a month) to stop the spread. China had great success with that approach in the initial phase of the pandemic, albeit at the cost of great human suffering in Wuhan and other hard-hit cities.

More recently, Shanghai has been under complete lockdown for over five weeks – but, given the hyper-contagious nature of the Omicron variant, the city’s harsh restrictions still haven’t succeeded in stamping out the spread. Meanwhile, the lockdown was a logistical nightmare, with people in China’s wealthiest city scrambling to secure food, medicine, and other basic necessities while forbidden from leaving their apartments. If Shanghai struggled with the logistics of a full-scale lockdown – despite its wealth and China’s ample experience in that style of pandemic management – it’s hard to see how North Korea will manage one.

It’s also questionable whether North Korea’s lockdown can succeed, given the difficulties China has faced in containing the Omicron variant. China has rolled out testing capabilities on a jaw-dropping scale nationwide, evidenced by repeated mass testing campaigns in cities with tens of millions of residents. China also has in place a high-tech infrastructure that allows it to flag suspected contacts or require negative test results to enter public buildings. North Korea has neither.

But China’s example is also a huge cautionary tale for North Korea in another sense. China’s leaders have warned that they cannot reopen or “live with” COVID-19 without risking a huge surge in infections that would overwhelm healthcare capacity and kill hundreds of thousands (up to 1.5 million, according to one recent estimate).

If China, which has a vaccination rate of nearly 90 percent and a far more developed healthcare infrastructure than North Korea, cannot afford to reopen, imagine how devastating an unchecked outbreak would be across the border. Healthcare is difficult to access for most North Koreans in the best of times, and the World Health Organization doesn’t believe North Korea has even started administering vaccines – the country has consistently refused vaccine donations from abroad.

And yet North Korea is also starting from far more dire economic situation, with food shortages already reported and whispers of widespread starvation deaths in rural areas. Now that Omicron has arrived, North Korea is in an impossible situation: it cannot afford to lock down, and it cannot afford not to lock down.

It’s no wonder that Kim, when first instituting the lockdown measures in early 2020, said the harsh steps where a matter of “national existence.”