North Korea reports first suspected COVID-19 infection as global cases top 16M

SEOUL (AFP) – North Korea declared its first suspected coronavirus case yesterday, becoming one of the last countries to do so as the number of people infected worldwide passed 16 million.

The isolated, impoverished state had until now insisted it had not detected a single COVID-19 case – even as the pandemic swept the planet, overwhelming health systems and trashing the global economy.

At least 645,000 people around the world have succumbed to the respiratory disease, with North Korean arch-rival the United States the worst-hit country by far.

“The vicious virus could be said to have entered the country,” leader Kim Jong-un said, according to the official KCNA news agency.

Authorities locked down the city of Kaesong, near the frontier with South Korea, as state media said a defector who left for the South three years ago had returned and was suspected to be infected with the coronavirus.

But experts believe the contagion is likely to have already entered North Korea from neighbouring China, where the new disease emerged late last year. The pandemic’s spread is still accelerating, with more than five million cases declared since July – a third of the total number of cases since the catastrophe began.

Even in recent days there has been an alarming uptick in infections, including in places that had appeared to have controlled their outbreaks.

One of those was Australia, which yesterday suffered its deadliest day since the pandemic began, with 10 fatalities and a rise in new infections despite an intense lockdown effort.

“These things change rapidly, but we have to say these numbers are far too high,” said Daniel Andrews, premier of Victoria state, where the latest outbreak is centred.