North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared an emergency and imposed a lockdown in the border city of Kaesong after the country reported its first suspected coronavirus case, state media said Sunday, adding that a person who defected three years ago to South Korea returned last week and exhibited COVID-19 symptoms after “illegally crossing the demarcation line.”
Pyongyang shut its borders and put thousands of people in isolation six months ago when the coronavirus pandemic began, but Kim’s regime has not acknowledged any coronavirus cases during that span, a feat analysts say was always unlikely. Still, the announcement appears to be a significant step for the secretive state — experts believe it may represent a cry for help. “It’s an ice-breaking moment for North Korea to admit a case,” said Choo Jae-woo, a professor at South Korea’s Kyung Hee University. “It could be reaching out to the world for help. Perhaps for humanitarian assistance.”
The description of the infected person, and the fact that the alleged case was imported, also may be meaningful. “North Korea is in such a dire situation, where they can’t even finish building the Pyongyang General Hospital on time,” said Cho Han-bum, a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. “Pointing the blame at an ‘imported case’ from South Korea, the North can use this as a way to openly accept aid from the South.