SEOUL — North Korea on Thursday reported its first outbreak of the coronavirus, declaring a “maximum emergency” and ordering all cities and counties in the nation of 25 million to lock down to fight the spread.
It was an abrupt change for a secretive country that had long insisted that it had no cases of the virus since it emerged in neighboring China more than two years ago. Outside experts had been skeptical, however, citing a lack of extensive Covid testing and the North’s threadbare public health system.
The danger posed by an outbreak is greater in North Korea than in most other nations because most of its people remain unvaccinated. Outside health experts have long questioned the North’s ability to fight a large-scale outbreak although its regime is capable of imposing totalitarian control on residents’ movement.
The outbreak, if not controlled quickly, could further strain the country’s economy, which had been already hit hard by years of United Nations sanctions and its decision two years ago to close its border with China, its only major trading partner, to prevent the spread of the virus. It could also affect efforts by the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to expand his nuclear arsenal “at the fastest possible speed,” analysts said.
The Covid cases emerged after health officials on Sunday tested people in an unidentified organization in Pyongyang, the capital, who showed symptoms such as fever, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said. They were confirmed to be infected with the BA.2 subvariant of the Omicron variant of the virus, the news agency said. It did not reveal how many people were infected.
Mr. Kim convened the Political Bureau of the ruling Workers’ Party on Thursday to discuss the crisis, the news agency said.
“He called on all the cities and counties of the whole country to thoroughly lock down their areas” to help prevent the virus from spreading, the report said. He instructed them to keep working, but said that “each working unit, production unit and living unit” must be kept “from each other.” He also called for tightened vigilance along all of the country’s land and sea borders, and at its air and sea ports.
The news agency did not reveal if officials knew how the virus had entered the country.
After closing its borders from the rest of the world for two years, North Korea again began allowing cargo trains to bring in badly needed imports from China early this year. The North also held a huge nighttime military parade late last month in which the soldiers, members of the elite and tens of thousands of people who mobilized to watch the spectacle did not appear to wear masks.
Signs of possible trouble began leaking out soon afterward.
South Korean intelligence officials said last week that the North Korean authorities were ordering people on the streets to return home and stay there. Also last week, Park Jie-won, director of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, said that the North had again banned cargo trains from China from entering his country.
On Thursday, the North Korean news agency said, Mr. Kim called for national unity at a time of state emergency, telling his people that a “more dangerous enemy of us than the malicious virus are unscientific fear, lack of faith and weak will.”
He urged his country to continue to push forward with the bold five-year economic development plan he unfurled during a Workers’ Party congress in January last year. Under that plan, North Koreans have been building residential districts in the capital and greenhouse complexes in provinces.
For Pyongyang to publicly admit to having Covid-19 cases, the public health situation had to have been serious, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international relations at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
“The worsening coronavirus situation is a serious challenge for Kim Jong-un, not only in terms of limiting infections, deaths and food disruptions,” Mr. Easley said. “Kim has credited strict social controls and self-imposed international isolation with keeping North Korea safe from Covid. If those signature measures fail, it could be a blow to regime legitimacy.”
The epidemic control measures that North Korea enforced on Thursday could further restrict the traffic of people and goods between towns and factories, and disrupt supplies and production, said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in South Korea.
If North Korea fails to bring the outbreak under control, it “could face a serious food crisis and the kind of great confusion we have seen in China recently,” Mr. Cheong said, referring to the severe difficulties created by the draconian restrictions that China has imposed on major cities like Shanghai in recent weeks.
Analysts questioned whether the Covid outbreak would affect Mr. Kim’s plan to restart nuclear tests. American and South Korean officials have warned in the past week that North Korea could resume such tests as soon as this month, possibly around the time that President Biden is scheduled to meet with South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, in Seoul on May 21.
They also wondered whether North Korea would change its policy of not accepting any pandemic-related humanitarian aid, including vaccine donations from world health organizations. South Korean officials have hoped that humanitarian shipments, including Covid-19 vaccines, could help restart the stalled dialogue between North Korea and the United States and allies.
Mr. Easley, of Ewha Womans University, said North Koreans might be less interested in nuclear or missile tests when the most urgent threat involved the coronavirus rather than a foreign military. But, Mr. Cheong said, “If anything, the North Korean leadership will likely try to boost the morale of the people in the wake of the outbreak through nuclear or missile tests.”
Along with North Korea, Turkmenistan and several small island nations such as Tuvalu and Nauru had reported having no coronavirus cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Still, the North had enforced some of the world’s harshest restrictions to keep the virus out.
In 2020, it created a buffer zone along its border with China, issuing a shoot-to-kill order to stop unauthorized crossings, according to South Korean and U.S. officials. Also that year, when a man from South Korea defected to the North, North Korea declared a national emergency for fear he might have brought in the virus. It was also accused of shooting a South Korean fisheries official found adrift in its waters and burning his body for fear of the virus.
North Korea has also been extremely hesitant to using the Covid vaccine. It is not known to have imported any doses. The country is also believed to be one of only two nations in the world not to have begun a Covid-19 vaccination initiative, though news reports have suggested that some key people, such as the top leadership elites, may have been vaccinated.
Mr. Kim himself has never appeared in public wearing a mask. All officials who attended the Political Bureau meeting on Thursday wore them — except for Mr. Kim, according to photos released by North Korean state media.