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North Korea confirms first COVID outbreak

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) – North Korea imposed a nationwide lockdown yesterday to control its first acknowledged COVID-19 outbreak after holding for more than two years to a widely doubted claim of a perfect record keeping out the virus that has spread to nearly every place in the world.

The outbreak forced leader Kim Jong-un to wear a mask in public likely for the first time since the start of the pandemic, but the scale of transmissions inside North Korea wasn’t immediately known.

A failure to slow infections could have serious consequences because the country has a poor health care system and its 26 million people are believed to be mostly unvaccinated. Some experts say the North, by its rare admission of an outbreak, may be seeking outside aid.

The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said tests of samples collected Sunday from an unspecified number of people with fevers in the capital, Pyongyang, confirmed they were infected with the Omicron variant.

In response, Kim during a ruling party Politburo meeting called for a thorough lockdown of cities and counties and said workplaces should be isolated by units to block the virus from spreading, KCNA said.

He urged health workers to step up disinfection efforts at workplaces and homes and mobilise reserve medical supplies.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attends a meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party in Pyongyang. PHOTO: AP

Kim said it was crucial to stabilise transmissions and eliminate the infection source as fast as possible, while also easing the inconveniences to the public caused by the virus controls.

Kim insisted that the country will surely overcome what he described as an unexpected outbreak because its government and people are “united as one”.

North Korea’s state TV showed Kim and other senior officials wearing masks as they entered a meeting room, although Kim removed his mask to speak into a set of microphones. Still photos distributed by KCNA showed Kim unmasked and sitting at the head of a table where all others remained masked.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, couldn’t immediately confirm whether it was the first time state media showed Kim wearing a mask since the start of the pandemic.

North Korea has maintained strict anti-virus controls at its border for more than two years and didn’t provide further details about its new lockdown. But an Associated Press photographer on the South Korean side of the border saw dozens of people working in farming fields or walking on footpaths at a North Korean border town – an indication the lockdown doesn’t require people to stay home or it exempts farm work.

The North’s government has shunned vaccines offered by the United Nations (UN)backed COVAX distribution programme, possibly because those have international monitoring requirements.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry said South Korea is willing to provide medical assistance and other help to the North based on humanitarian considerations. Relations between the Koreas have deteriorated since 2019 amid a stalemate in nuclear negotiations and the North’s increasingly provocative weapons demonstrations.