North Korean leader Kim Jong Un placed the city of Kaesong near the border with South Korea under total lockdown after a person was found with suspected Covid-19 symptoms, saying he believes "the vicious virus" may have entered the country, state media reported Sunday.
If the person is officially declared a virus patient, he or she would be the North's first confirmed coronavirus case.
North Korea has steadfastly said it has no single virus case on its territory, a claim questioned by outside experts.
The lockdown was declared on Friday afternoon. The Korean Central News Agency said the suspected case was a runaway who had fled to South Korea years ago before illegally crossing the border into the North early last week.
KCNA said respiratory secretion and blood tests showed the person "is suspected to have been infected" with the virus.
Contacts and those who have been to Kaesong in the past five days were placed under quarantine.
Describing its anti-virus efforts as a "matter of national existence," North Korea earlier this year shut down nearly all cross-border traffic, banned foreign tourists and mobilised health workers to quarantine anyone with symptoms. But the Kaesong lockdown is the first such known measure taken in a North Korean city to stem the pandemic.
Foreign experts say a coronavirus outbreak in North Korea could cause dire consequences because of its poor public healthcare infrastructure and chronic lack of medical supplies.
Kaesong, a city with an estimated 200,000 people, is located just north of the heavily fortified land border with South Korea. It once hosted the Koreas' jointly run industrial complex, which remains stalled since 2016 amid nuclear tensions.
Last month, North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong to protest a campaign by South Korean activists who have been sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border.
During an emergency Politburo meeting Saturday, Kim also declared a state of emergency in the Kaesong area and "clarified the determination of the Party Central Committee to shift from the state emergency anti-epidemic system to the maximum emergency system and issue a top-class alert," KCNA said.
It quoted Kim as saying that there was "a critical situation in which the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country."
Kim said he took "the preemptive measure of totally blocking Kaesong City and isolating each district and region from the other within July 24 afternoon just after receiving the report on it," according to KCNA.
The Politburo meeting also discussed the "loose guard performance" at the border area where the suspected case crossed over to North Korea. KCNA said that Kim and other leaders were briefed on the results of an intensive investigation of a military unit responsible for the border crossing case and discussed administering "a severe punishment."
More than 33,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea over the past 20 years to avoid poverty and political suppression, mostly via the long, porous border with China. But it's rare for North Korean refugees to return to their homeland by crossing the mine-strewn inter-Korean border.
The South Korean government has no immediate comments on the North Korean announcement. "Blaming an alleged return defector for bringing Covid-19 into the country is likely intended to shift blame for spread of the virus away from China and Pyongyang and on to Seoul," Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said.
"This may also be a tactic for ratcheting up diplomatic pressure on [South Korea] and trying to further dissuade North Koreans from defecting to the South," he said. - AP