State media said the country has been witnessing an “explosively spread” of Covid since April with the virus likely infecting 350,000 people and killing six. They all exhibited symptoms of fever, while one person who died was confirmed infected with the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron.
“A fever whose cause couldn’t be identified spread explosively nationwide from late April,” state news agency KCNA said. It added that the outbreak has extended beyond the capital. “As of now up to 187,800 people are being isolated.”
On Thursday, about 18,000 people reported Covid symptoms, authorities said, adding that 162,200 have been treated so far. But they did not specify how many of those treated had tested positive for Covid-19, and there is no clarity on the number of confirmed Covid cases.
In signs of growing urgency about the coronavirus in the country, state television showed North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wearing a mask for the first time during a Workers’ Party meeting outlining new Covid rules.
Authorities did not elaborate on the cause of the outbreak, but Mr Kim recently oversaw a military parade with hundreds of thousands of unmasked attendees.
While the rest of the world concentrated on the pandemic, Mr Kim’s regime had remained focused on alleged foreign threats to national security, conducting a spree of missile tests while pursuing the development of nuclear weapons along with its ballistic missile programmes.
The deaths were reported a day after health authorities publicly acknowledged an outbreak of the Omicron virus for the first time since the pandemic began. The government continues to claim that its international lockdown measures kept Covid-19 out of the country for more than two years.
But hours after making the announcement, North Korea launched three ballistic missiles from near Pyongyang toward the sea off its east coast, its southern neighbour Seoul said. It was the country’s 16th missile test this year.
Visiting the anti-virus command centre on Thursday, Mr Kim declared the outbreak a “gravest state of emergency” and ordered a nationwide lockdown.
He said “the simultaneous spread of fever” with capital Pyongyang as the epicentre shows “there is a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system we have already established”, according to state media.
Mr Kim said the North’s top priority should be to actively isolate and treat people with fevers, and called for scientific treatment methods and tactics “at a lightning tempo”.
Local reports added that health authorities were trying to organise testing and treatment systems and bolster disinfection work.
So far, North Korea has not accepted any Covid-19 vaccines, either from neighbours such as China or the World Health Organisation.
The rapid spread of infections has highlighted the potential for a major crisis in a country, as analysts say no individual is vaccinated and health facilities lack medical resources, including testing facilities.
Health officials in South Korea said they hoped humanitarian shipments, including vaccines, could help restart diplomatic dialogue between North Korea and the US and allies.
In response to the emerging virus in 2020, North Korea had halted trade with neighbouring countries, closed its railway network, and sealed its borders – a response that resulted in a dire economic situation and left its people facing food shortages after supply chains were hit.
South Korea’s Kwon Young-se, the new nominee to be the unification minister responsible for inter-Korean ties, said the announcement by Mr Kim is a signal that he was willing to accept humanitarian assistance.
Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said “the United States does not currently have plans to share vaccines” with the North. She criticised it for “continuing to exploit its own citizens” by not accepting humanitarian aid during the pandemic.
Additional reporting by agencies