Pyongyang announces the country's first-ever case of Covid-19, with state media calling it a "severe national emergency incident" after more than two years of keeping the pandemic at bay.

The announcement is the country's first official Covid-19 infection since the beginning of the pandemic.
The announcement is the country's first official Covid-19 infection since the beginning of the pandemic. (AFP)

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has called for nationwide lockdowns after the nuclear-armed country confirmed its first-ever case of Covid-19. 

Kim "called on all the cities and counties of the whole country to thoroughly lock down their areas," the official KCNA news agency said on Thursday.

Factories, businesses and homes should be closed down and reorganised "to flawlessly and perfectly block the spread vacuum of the malicious virus," it added. 

North Korea has detected an outbreak of a sub-variant of the highly transmissible Omicron version of the coronavirus, known as BA.2, state media KCNA said. 

Kim chaired the Workers' Party meeting on the Covid outbreak response while the state media called it a "severe national emergency incident" after more than two years of keeping the pandemic at bay. 

Kim ordered the country-wide "separation" of North Koreans into individual living and production units and vowed to "overcome" the outbreak.

Kim called for officials to stabilise transmissions and eliminate the infection source as fast as possible, KCNA added.

READ MORE: How bad is North Korea's Covid-19 pandemic

'Outbreak could trigger instability'

KCNA said Thursday's tests from an unspecified number of people in the capital Pyongyang confirmed that they were infected with the Omicron variant.

North Korea had previously claimed a perfect record in keeping out Covid-19 from its territory. 

It had closed its border to nearly all trade and visitors for two years that further shocked an economy already damaged by decades of mismanagement and crippling US-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile programme.

North Korea was one of the last places in the world without an acknowledged virus case. Turkmenistan has reported no cases to the World Health Organization, though its claim also is widely doubted by outside experts. 

In recent months, some Pacific island nations that kept the virus out by their geographic isolation have recorded outbreaks.

Experts say a major Covid-19 outbreak would have devastating consequences because of North Korea’s poor health care system and could possibly trigger instability when combined with other problems like serious food shortages.

READ MORE: WHO triples Covid death toll estimate to up to 15M in last two years

'National existence'

North Korea’s previous coronavirus-free claim had been disputed by many foreign experts. But South Korean officials have said North Korea had likely avoided a huge outbreak, in part because it instituted strict virus controls almost from the start of the pandemic.

Early in 2020 — before the coronavirus spread around the world — North Korea took severe steps to keep out the virus and described them as a matter of “national existence". It quarantined people with symptoms resembling Covid-19 and all but halted cross-border traffic and trade for two years and is even believed to have ordered troops to shoot on sight any trespassers who crossed its borders.

The extreme border closures further shocked an economy already damaged by decades of mismanagement and crippling US-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile program, pushing Kim to perhaps the toughest moment of his rule since he took power in 2011.

North Korea in January tentatively reopened railroad freight traffic between its border town of Sinuiju and China’s Dandong, but China announced a halt to the trade last month as it deals with the spread of Covid-19 in Dandong.

It’s unusual for North Korea to admit the outbreak of any infectious disease though Kim has occasionally been candid about national and social problems and policy failures.

During a flu pandemic in 2009 when the country was ruled by his father, Kim Jong Il, North Korea said that nine people in Pyongyang and the northwestern border town of Sinuiju had contracted the flu. Some outside experts said at the time the admission was aimed at winning outside aid.

Experts say Kim Jong Un still hasn’t publicly asked for any aid including Covid-19 vaccines from the United States and South Korea amid the prolonged stalemate in nuclear diplomacy.

READ MORE: 'Zero-Covid' restrictions in China prevent May 1 holiday travel

Source: TRTWorld and agencies