Update at 15:05 KST (July 26): This article has been updated to include South Korean military comments regarding the KCNA report.
Correction at 17:55 KST (July 28): This article has been amended to fix the date when the Central Committee meeting was held.
North Korea may be facing its first known case of COVID-19 after a “runaway” person allegedly crossed the border and was found in Kaesong City, state media reported on Sunday.
“A runaway who went to the south three years ago” is “suspected to have been infected with the vicious virus” after “illegally crossing” the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) on July 19, according to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
Top leadership responded by convening an emergency enlarged Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee Political Bureau (Politburo) meeting on July 25, where they shifted to a “maximum emergency system” and agreed to put out a “top-class alert.”
South Korean military is “verifying facts” regarding the KCNA report, “closely coordinating with relevant agencies, specifying some people, considering particular time and region,” a military official told reporters Sunday afternoon. The official added that the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) is reviewing “overall readiness posture of the military, such as its monitoring equipment and recorded video clips.”
However, it’s still unclear whether the “runaway” person really has COVID-19. North Korea’s “anti-epidemic organization” received an “uncertain result” after testing the person’s upper respiratory organs and blood, the KCNA reported. Authorities also put the individual under “strict quarantine.”
Meanwhile, those who may have come into contact with the individual in Kaesong City and those who visited the city within the last five days “are being thoroughly investigated, given medical examination and put under quarantine,” according to the KCNA.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered a lockdown on Kaesong City on July 24, isolating each district within the city from the other. Kim reportedly stated “that everyone needs to face up to the reality of [the] emergency” and designated each major sector with unspecified tasks to help protect against the virus.
The KCNA announcement marks a potential departure from North Korea’s claims that the country has been unaffected by the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, with zero cases detected. But even so, some analysts are not convinced that the DPRK is telling the truth.
“Chances of this being an absolutely honest and transparent report are close to zero,” Christopher Green, a lecturer at the Universiteit Leiden in the Netherlands, told NK News. “The likelihood of infections entering across the northern border are far higher, but of course that border has been carefully controlled. And to admit entry of the virus that way would be to admit to lacking control over the border itself.”
“This story, [while] implausible to us, may well work for North Korea’s purposes,” Green added. “It allows them to propagandize the leader’s benevolence in treating this renegade citizen, implying that returning citizens are looked after, come hell or high water.”
Led by Kim Jong Un himself, North Korea’s enlarged July 24 meeting also included members of the political bureau of the Central Committee and members of the Central Emergency Anti-epidemic Headquarters. Officials from the Cabinet, ministries, national institutions and others joined by video conference.
Kim Jong Un previously headed a Politburo meeting on COVID-19 prevention policies earlier this month, on July 2. During the meeting, the North Korean leader criticized officials for their “self-complacence or relaxation on the anti-epidemic front.”
So far, at least 1,117 people have been tested for the virus since the global pandemic started, a World Health Organization official told NK News on July 21 (the latest available numbers). All of those 1,117 individuals tested received negative results.
On Sunday, the KCNA stated that North Korean officials pledged to investigate the incident involving a “runaway” at the border and “administer a severe punishment” or “take necessary measures” in response.
Chad O’Carroll and Jeongmin Kim contributed reporting
Kelly Kasulis is the Managing Editor of NK News, based in Seoul. She previously covered North and South Korea for Public Radio International, Al Jazeera English, Bloomberg Industry, Mic and many others. Follow Kelly on Twitter: @kasulisk.