North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered a city near the border with South Korea locked down after officials found a person who may be infected with the coronavirus, state media reported.
Kim attended an emergency meeting of the Workers’ Party and took the “preemptive measure” of isolating Kaesong City on Friday following the report on the suspected case, the Korean Central News Agency said.
The person illegally returned to North Korea on July 19 across the demarcation line with South Korea, the state media said, prompting the government to launch a probe into the military unit responsible for the crossing with plans to “administer a severe punishment.”
KCNA said the person had defected to South Korea three years ago, but didn’t provide details on how it was possible to return across a border guarded by tens of thousands of military personnel. Making prospects of crossing the 4-kilometer-wide (2.5 miles) Demilitarized Zone buffer even more perilous are the fields of landmines.
While KCNA said “an uncertain result” was made from several examinations of the person’s secretions, the report adds to speculation that the coronavirus has reached North Korea even though the regime has yet to confirm a single case of Covid-19.
Kim said a critical situation “in which the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country” happened and that everyone should rally behind the party central committee he leads to defend the welfare and security of the country, KCNA said.
The move signals Kim will tighten control over the population and state during the pandemic. He already chastised some top cadres over their management of the coronavirus outbreak during a top political meeting reported early this month, warning officials that they may be growing complacent.
North Korea’s deteriorating economy adds to the urgency of ensuring the virus doesn’t reach the masses. The country may suffer the largest economic contraction this year since a famine in the 1990s after borders with its biggest trading partner China were closed to prevent the spread of the virus, according to Fitch Solutions.
The commander of U.S. Forces Korea has said the virus has likely made its way to the isolated country. Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono last month said he believes the disease may be spreading there and Kim is keeping to himself to avoid infection.
Unlike North Korea’s heavily militarized border with South Korea, the country’s 880-mile border with China is porous — and the black-market traders who have crossed for years from both sides have been considered to be a more likely source of bringing the virus into North Korea.
North Korea is one of the world’s poorest countries and its lack of equipment and hard currency could complicate the efforts to track and identify Covid-19 cases. Despite an unprecedented flurry of summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, U.S. President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping, Kim has been unable to reduce sanctions on his country or achieve the security guarantees he wanted in exchange for offering to scale back his nuclear weapons program.