North Korea declares emergency in border town as first suspected COVID-19 case emerges
If the case is confirmed, it would be the first to be officially acknowledged by North Korean authorities who have so far maintained that the country has no confirmed cases of the pandemic.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un convened an emergency meeting after a person suspected of having COVID-19 allegedly illegally crossed the border this month from South Korea, state news agency KCNA said on Sunday. The meeting was called to implement a "maximum emergency system and issue a top-class alert".
Kim declared a state of emergency and imposed a lockdown on the border city of Kaesong, calling it a "critical situation in which the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country," the media outlet said.
If the case is confirmed, it would be the first case to be officially acknowledged by North Korean authorities, who have so far maintained that the country has no confirmed cases of the pandemic.
KCNA said that a person who defected to South Korea three years ago returned to the country illegally, with symptoms that pointed to COVID-19. He is said to have entered the country on July 19 through the heavily fortified border that divides the two Koreas.
“An emergency event happened in Kaesong City where a runaway who went to the south three years ago, a person who is suspected to have been infected with the vicious virus returned on July 19 after illegally crossing the demarcation line (sic),” the media outlet said." It is dangerous situation... that may lead to a deadly and destructive disaster."
However, there was no confirmation as to whether the deflector had tested positive for COVID-19. The news agency, however, said that an "uncertain result was made from several medical check-ups of the secretion of that person's upper respiratory organ and blood," prompting officials to quarantine the person and investigate anyone he may have been in contact with.
Kim was quoted as saying “the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country”, and officials on Friday took the “preemptive measure of totally blocking Kaesong City”.
Though the country closed its borders in late January itself, experts say that it is unlikely that North Korea would be able to avoid the contagion. The country had previously quarantined thousands of citizens and imposed strict border closures. North Korea has also received thousands of coronavirus testing kits from Russia and other countries in a bid to tackle the disease.
In recent weeks, North Korea also stepped up a campaign criticizing defectors to South Korea as "human scum" and asking South Korea to crack down on groups that send propaganda messages into the North.
Kim has also ordered an investigation into the military units along the border where the person was suspected of crossing to "administer a severe punishment and take necessary measures."
South Korean officials are checking to see if a defector had indeed crossed back into North Korea as is being claimed, the South's Yonhap news agency reported.
(With input from agencies)