North Korean leader Kim Jong Un convened an emergency meeting Saturday after it was reported that a defector who fled the country three years ago had returned to the North Korean city of Kaesong, while possibly infected with coronavirus, according to state-run newswire KCNA.
Authorities in South Korea confirmed Monday that a defector had crossed the highly militarized border into North Korea. The South Korean Health Ministry said the man was not a known coronavirus patient or a close contact of one, but local police said the man was being investigated for a sex crime.
KCNA said the defector had symptoms of Covid-19, but did not confirm if he had been tested. Close contacts of the suspected case were being examined and quarantined, but KCNA warned of a “dangerous situation” developing in Kaesong that could lead to a “deadly and destructive disaster.”
Few experts believe that North Korea, a country of nearly 25 million people which shares a border with China, could have escaped the effects of a pandemic that has infected more than 16 million people worldwide and killed nearly 650,000.
It’s possible North Korea has simply not identified existing cases due to a lack of testing, or has successfully managed to isolate small clusters of cases and is not reporting them.
But if this defector does test positive and causes a major outbreak, Covid-19 could turn into one of the biggest threats Kim has faced in his nearly nine years of rule.
What’s at stake?
The virus has proven to be one of the most difficult and deadly challenges for leaders across the planet, but for Kim it is uniquely worrying.
Experts say that North Korea’s dilapidated healthcare infrastructure is unlikely to be up to the task of treating a large number of patients sickened with a new virus that the global healthcare community does not fully understand.
That’s probably one reason why the Kim regime has been so proactive in its efforts to keep the virus at bay.
North Korea closed its borders in January after reports of Covid-19 emerged, even though such a move likely came with painful costs considering just how heavily Pyongyang relies on Beijing to keep its economy afloat.
But the country is also in a unique position to stop clusters in their tracks.
Foreign travel to North Korea was extremely limited even before the pandemic, and is now close to zero — it’s mostly only diplomats and foreign aid workers who enter the country, and they are required to undergo strict quarantines upon arrival.