North Korea has declared an emergency and a lockdown in a border town after a person who illegally crossed over from South Korea is suspected of being infected with the novel coronavirus.
If confirmed this would be the first case acknowledged by North Korea.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un convened an emergency politburo meeting in response to what he called a “critical situation in which the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country”, the North’s KCNA state news reported.
“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,” KCNA said.
KCNA did not say if the person had been tested, but said 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.
Experts suggest North Korea’s acceptance means it is appealing to the world for help.
Cho Han-bum, a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said it was significant that North Korea was reporting its first suspected coronavirus case was imported.
“North Korea is in such a dire situation, where they can’t even finish building the Pyongyang General Hospital on time. Pointing the blame at an ‘imported case’ from South Korea, the North can use this as a way to openly accept aid from the South,” Cho said.
North Korea has received thousands of coronavirus testing kits from Russia and other countries and imposed strict border closures.
Thousands of people in North Korea were also quarantined as it took precautions to prevent a coronavirus outbreak but restrictions had recently been eased.
North Korea is under economic pressure because of international sanctions over its nuclear programme.