North Korea imposes nationwide lockdown over 1st reported COVID-19 outbreak

North Korea imposed a nationwide lockdown Thursday to control its first acknowledged COVID-19 outbreak after two years of holding to a widely doubted claim that it had a perfect record of keeping out the coronavirus.

Leader Kim Jong-un has called for raising preventive measures to maximum levels

In this still image taken from a video broadcast by North Korea's KRT, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is shown wearing a mask — in what may be the first time in public — on state television during a meeting acknowledging the country's first case of COVID-19 on Thursday. (KRT/The Associated Press)

After holding to the widely doubted line for more than two years that it had a perfect record of keeping out the coronavirus, North Korea has imposed a nationwide lockdown to control its first acknowledged COVID-19 outbreak.

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 Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said Thursday tests from an unspecified number of people with fevers in the capital Pyongyang confirmed that they were infected with the Omicron variant.

KNCA said Kim called for a thorough lockdown of cities and counties during a ruling party Politburo meeting. He was also reported to have said that workplaces should be isolated by units to block the virus from spreading. He urged health workers to step up disinfection efforts and mobilize reserve medical supplies. 

The North's government has shunned vaccines offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, 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. 

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.

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 that either the lockdown doesn't require people to stay home, or that it exempts farm work.

One of the last countries to acknowledge virus

North Korea was one of the last places in the world without an acknowledged virus case. Turkmenistan, a similarly secretive and authoritarian nation in Central Asia, has reported no cases to the World Health Organization, though its claim is also widely doubted by outside experts.

In recent months, some Pacific island nations that kept the virus out by their geographic isolation have recorded outbreaks.

In this March 18 photo, employees at the Pyongyang Children's Department Store are seen spraying disinfectant and wiping down surfaces as part of preventive measures against COVID-19. Nearly two months later, North Korea has announced its first coronavirus infection more than two years into the pandemic. (Kim Won Jin/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite the decision to elevate anti-virus steps, Kim ordered officials to push ahead with scheduled construction, agricultural development and other state projects while bolstering the country's defence postures to avoid any security vacuum.

Kim said officials must also formulate steps to ease any public inconveniences and other negative situations that could flare as a result of the boosted anti-pandemic measures. Kim said that "the single-minded public unity is the most powerful guarantee that can win in this anti-pandemic fight," KCNA said.

North Korea's announcement of the infections came after NK News, a North Korea-focused news site, cited unidentified sources who said authorities had imposed a lockdown on Pyongyang residents. South Korea's government said it couldn't confirm the report.

Particular challenges for North Korea

Experts say a major COVID-19 outbreak could possibly trigger instability when combined with other problems like serious food shortages.

North Korea's previous coronavirus-free claim had been disputed by many foreign experts. But South Korean officials have said the North had likely avoided a huge outbreak, in part because it instituted strict virus controls almost from the start of the pandemic.

Early in 2020 — before the coronavirus spread around the world — North Korea took severe steps to keep out the virus. It quarantined people with symptoms resembling COVID-19 and all but halted cross-border traffic and trade for two years. 

It is even believed to have ordered troops to shoot on sight any trespassers who crossed its borders.

A student is seen having his temperature taken outside of a Pyongyang high school, as part of COVID-19 prevention measures, in June of 2021. (Kim Won Jin/AFP/Getty Images)

It's unusual for North Korea to admit the outbreak of any infectious disease, though Kim has occasionally been candid about national and social problems, and policy failures.

Experts say Kim still hasn't publicly asked for any aid including COVID-19 vaccines from the United States and South Korea amid the prolonged stalemate in nuclear diplomacy.