SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said on Sunday that it had locked down a city near its border with South Korea and declared a “maximum” national emergency after finding what its leader, Kim Jong-un, said could be the country’s first case of Covid-19 there.
It issued the high alert after a North Korean who had defected to South Korea three years ago but secretly crossed back into the North’s Kaesong City last Sunday was “suspected to have been infected with the vicious virus,” the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said on Sunday.
After running several tests, the health authorities put the person and contacts under quarantine, as well as those who have been in Kaesong City in the last five days, the North Korean news agency said.
While reporting the incident, the agency stopped short of calling it the country’s first case of the coronavirus, saying the test result was “uncertain.”
But it was serious enough that Mr. Kim called an emergency meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Political Bureau on Saturday, where he admitted that his country may have its first outbreak of Covid-19.
“There happened a critical situation in which the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country,” Mr. Kim was quoted as saying, while declaring “a state of emergency” around Kaesong City and ordering his country to shift to “the maximum emergency system and issue a top-class alert.”
Mr. Kim “took the pre-emptive measure of totally blocking Kaesong City and isolating each district and region from the other” on Friday shortly after he received a report on the situation, the North Korean news agency said.
Until now North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated countries, has repeatedly said that it has no case of Covid-19, although outside experts questioned the claim.
A Covid-19 outbreak could seriously test North Korea’s underequipped public health system and its economy, already struggling under international sanctions. International relief agencies have been providing test kits and other assistance to help the country fight any potential spread of Covid-19.
North Korea has taken some of the most drastic actions of any country against the virus, and did so sooner than most other nations.
It sealed its borders in late January, shutting off business with neighboring China, which accounts for nine-tenths of its external trade. It clamped down on the smugglers who keep its thriving unofficial markets functioning. It quarantined all diplomats in Pyongyang for a month.
The government’s ability to control the movement of people also bolsters its disease-control efforts.
But decades of isolation and international sanctions have raised concerns that it lacks the medical supplies to fight an outbreak, which many fear has already occurred.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Updated July 23, 2020
What is school going to look like in September?
- It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.
Is the coronavirus airborne?
- The coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air, infecting people as they inhale, mounting scientific evidence suggests. This risk is highest in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, and may help explain super-spreading events reported in meatpacking plants, churches and restaurants. It’s unclear how often the virus is spread via these tiny droplets, or aerosols, compared with larger droplets that are expelled when a sick person coughs or sneezes, or transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech. Aerosols are released even when a person without symptoms exhales, talks or sings, according to Dr. Marr and more than 200 other experts, who have outlined the evidence in an open letter to the World Health Organization.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
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Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
- So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
North Korea’s senior disease-control officials attended the Political Bureau meeting Mr. Kim called on Saturday, while other senior government and party officials from across the country watched it through video conferencing, state media reported. Mr. Kim ordered them to fight the spread of the virus “with a sense of boundless responsibility, loyalty and devotion.”
North Korea did not reveal the identity of the North Korean runaway who it said returned home with the possible virus infection from South Korea. The South Korean government did not immediately react to the North Korean claim.
The North said it was investigating a military unit for failing to catch the runaway when the person first slipped through the inter-Korean border to defect to the South three years ago, and said it planned to “administer a severe punishment and take necessary measures.” The defector returned home last Sunday after illegally crossing back, it said.
More than 30,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea since the early 1990s. But some have failed to adapt to life in the capitalist South Korea and fled back to the North. Still, defections across the inter-Korean border, one of the world’s most heavily armed, are rare.