North Korea confirmed its first-ever Covid-19 cases Thursday and declared a “serious emergency”, with leader Kim Jong Un appearing in a mask on television for the first time to order nationwide lockdowns.
Hours after the shock announcement — the first time the nuclear-armed country has admitted to having Covid cases — Seoul’s military said it had detected three short-range ballistic missiles fired from near Pyongyang.
Earlier Thursday, North Korea said it had moved into a “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system” after patients with fevers in Pyongyang tested positive for the “Omicron BA.2 variant” of Covid.
Kim told the meeting that the goal was to “quickly cure the infections in order to eradicate the source of the virus spread,” official KCNA news agency said, without specifying how many cases had been detected.
– ‘Continuing provocations’ –
New President Yoon Suk-yeol’s administration slammed North Korea’s “continuing provocations with a ballistic missile launch despite the coronavirus outbreak,” his security office said after a meeting.
“It is now reasonable to assume it could also conduct a nuclear test with Kim Jong Un’s greenlight at any moment,” he added.
“For Pyongyang to publicly admit Omicron cases, the public health situation must be serious,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul said.
North Korea has turned down offers of Covid vaccines from the World Health Organization, China and Russia.
“That’s why North Korea rejected it,” Go said.
South Korea, which has high rates of vaccination, has recently eased almost all Covid restrictions, with cases sharply down after a spike in March.
It appears North Korea will try to avoid China’s strict measures, which have seen millions of people locked into their apartments for several weeks, including in Beijing, said Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute.
Seoul-based specialist site NK News reported that areas of Pyongyang had already been locked down for two days, with reports of panic buying.
South Korea’s president, who was sworn in Tuesday, has vowed to get tough with Pyongyang after five years of failed diplomacy.
Satellite imagery indicates North Korea is preparing to conduct a nuclear test, and the United States has warned this could come as soon as this month.
“There is a possibility of delaying the nuclear test in order to focus on overcoming the coronavirus,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, told AFP.
The Sejong Institute’s Cheong agreed that more weapons tests were likely for the regime to “boost the morale of North Korean citizens” in light of the Covid situation.
Originally published as North Korea fires missiles after Covid cases prompt Kim to order lockdown