Kim Jong Un locks down border city on coronavirus outbreak fears

Kim Jong Un has moved to isolate the border city of Kaesong from the rest of North Korea because of coronavirus fears, marking the first time the secretive state has admitted the global pandemic has potentially breached its borders.

The North Korean dictator has declared a state of emergency in the city, and has taken measures “totally blocking Kaesong city and isolating each district and region from the other”, according to a report released by state news agency KCNA on Sunday.

International experts have warned that any coronavirus outbreak in North Korea could devastate the country. Its healthcare system is incapable of handling a serious health crisis and suffers from a dearth of basic preventive equipment. The virus would hit the country’s 25m people hard, many of whom already suffer from ill health.

According to the KCNA report, the potential transmission of Covid-19 has been blamed on a North Korean “runaway” who returned from South Korea on July 19.

“As an uncertain result was made from several medical check-ups of the secretion of that person’s upper respiratory organ and blood, the person was put under strict quarantine as a primary step and all the persons in Kaesong City who contacted that person and those who have been to the city in the last five days are being thoroughly investigated, given medical examination and put under quarantine,” the KCNA report said.

Mr Kim, who held an emergency meeting with senior officials on Saturday, said that “everyone needs to face up to the reality of emergency”. He ordered a “shift from the state emergency anti-epidemic system to the maximum emergency system”, according to the report. Officials also vowed to “administer a severe punishment” for the “loose guard performance” in the border area.

The moves mark a stark turnround after Mr Kim this month claimed a “shining success” in stopping coronavirus infections from sweeping through North Korea. The claim has been met with international scepticism over Pyongyang’s reports of zero confirmed infections.

North Korea, however, has been credited by some experts for its comparatively early and decisive action to protect itself from the virus.

In January, Pyongyang severed most land, sea and air routes connecting the country with China and Russia. The Kim regime cracked down on internal trade and travel, as it sought to isolate itself from what was a rapidly deteriorating situation in Wuhan, China.

Still, North Korean watchers — including a US general and top Japanese officials — have made public their doubts over whether Pyongyang’s restrictions had been sufficient in stopping the spread of coronavirus into the country.

The World Health Organization, which has staff in Pyongyang and is assisting North Korean health officials, said this month that more than 1,000 people had been tested for the coronavirus. It said hundreds of people were being quarantined at both Nampo, a port city on the west coast, and Sinuiju, an important trade city that connects the country with China.