North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called an emergency meeting after an individual suspected of having COVID-19 illegally crossed the border from South Korea, state media said on Sunday.
If the person is officially declared a virus patient, it would be the first confirmed coronavirus case acknowledged by Pyongyang. North Korea has so far maintained that the country has recorded not a single case of coronavirus on its territory, a claim questioned by outside experts.
According to state news agency KCNA, Kim convened an emergency meeting on Saturday, after imposing a preemptive lockdown on the border town of Kaesong on Friday. It quoted Kim as saying that there was “a critical situation in which the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country.”
First citywide lockdown
The individual “suspected to have been infected with the vicious virus” defected to the south three years ago and illegally crossed the heavily guarded military demarcation line separating the two countries on July 19, KCNA said.
The agency said that “several medical check-ups” produced an “uncertain result” and that the individual was put under strict quarantine in the border town of Kaesong as a first step. It wasn’t clear whether the individual was specifically tested for COVID-19.
Kaesong, a city with an estimated 200,000 people, is located just north of the heavily fortified land border with South Korea. KCNA said that people who have been in contact with the individual and those who have been to the town in the last five days were being “thoroughly investigated, given a medical examination and put under quarantine.”
The agency said that an investigation into the military unit “responsible for the runaway case” was underway and that “severe punishment” would be administered and “necessary measures” taken.
Poor public healthcare
Describing its anti-virus efforts as a “matter of national existence,” North Korea earlier this year shut down nearly all cross-border traffic, banned foreign tourists and mobilized health workers to quarantine anyone with symptoms.
Early in July, Kim praised the country’s six months of anti-epidemic efforts as a “shining success” at a party meeting, though he also said that easing measures too hastily would lead to an “unimaginable and irretrievable crisis,” according to KCNA.
Little is known about the reclusive nation’s true health situation. Foreign experts say a coronavirus outbreak in North Korea could cause dire consequences because of its poor public healthcare infrastructure and chronic lack of medical supplies.
More than 33,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea over the past 20 years to avoid poverty and political suppression, mostly via the long, porous border with China. But it’s rare for North Korean refugees to return to their homeland by crossing the mine-strewn inter-Korean border.
The South Korean government has no immediate comments on the North Korean announcement. Yonhap news agency cited the South Korean military as well as officials at the unification ministry and the presidential office as saying work is underway to check the claim about the unauthorized border crossing.
sri/mm (AP, dpa, Reuters)
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