North Korea’s escalating virus response raises fear of outbreak

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korea is quarantining thousands of people and shipping food and other aid to a southern city locked down over coronavirus worries, officials said, as the country’s response to a suspected case reinforces doubt about its longstanding claim to be virus-free.

But amid the outside scepticism and a stream of North Korean propaganda glorifying its virus efforts, an exchange between the country and the United Nations is providing new clarity – and actual numbers – about what might be happening in North Korea, which has closed its borders and cut travel – never a free-flowing stream – by outsider monitors and journalists.

In late July, North Korea said it had imposed its “maximum emergency system” to guard against the virus spreading after finding a person with COVID-19 symptoms in Kaesong city, near the border with rival South Korea.

State media reported that leader Kim Jong-un then ordered a total lockdown of Kaesong, and said the suspected case was a North Korean who had earlier fled to South Korea before slipping back into Kaesong last month.

North Korea’s public admission of its first potential case and the emergency steps it took prompted immediate outside speculation that it may be worried about a big outbreak after months of steadfastly claiming it had no cases. Foreign experts are highly sceptical of North Korea’s assertion of no cases, in large part because of its long, porous border with China, where the virus emerged, and its history of hiding past disease outbreaks.

In a report to the World Health Organization (WHO), North Korea said it has quarantined 64 first contacts of the suspected Keasong case and 3,571 secondary contacts in state-run facilities for a period of 40 days, according to Dr Edwin Salvador, WHO representative to North Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, North Korea. PHOTO: AP