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  12 May 2022, 09:42
Update : 12 May 2022, 17:27

North Korea fires missile after Covid cases prompt Kim to order lockdown

SEOUL, May 12, 2022 (BSS/AFP) - North Korea confirmed its first-ever Covid 
cases Thursday and declared a "serious emergency", with leader Kim Jong Un 
appearing in a mask on television for the first time to order nationwide 
lockdowns.

Hours after the shock announcement -- the first time the nuclear-armed 
country has ever admitted to a case of Covid-19 -- Seoul's military said it 
had detected three short-range ballistic missiles fired from near Pyongyang.

The launch, one of more than a dozen sanctions-busting weapons tests so far 
this year, comes shortly after Washington warned that Kim's regime could test 
a nuke any day, with satellite images indicating fresh activity at nuclear 
sites.

Earlier Thursday, North Korea said it had moved into "maximum emergency 
epidemic prevention system" after patients sick with fever in Pyongyang 
tested positive for the "Omicron BA.2 variant" of Covid-19.

Kim, wearing a mask on state television for the first time, oversaw an 
emergency politburo meeting to discuss the outbreak and "called on all the 
cities and counties of the whole country to thoroughly lock down their 
areas."

Kim told the meeting that the goal was to "quickly cure the infections in 
order to eradicate the source of the virus spread," KCNA said, without 
specifying how many Covid infections had been detected.

North Korea's crumbling health infrastructure would struggle to deal with a 
major outbreak, with its 25 million people not vaccinated, experts say.

By following its admission of Covid cases with a missile test, North Korea is 
signalling "coronavirus control and its pursuit of national defence are two 
separate things," Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean 
Studies said.

"It is now reasonable to assume it could also conduct a nuclear test with Kim 
Jong Un's greenlight at any moment," he added. 

- No vaccines -

"For Pyongyang to publicly admit Omicron cases, the public health situation 
must be serious," Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul 
said.

"Pyongyang will likely double down on lockdowns, even though the failure of 
China's zero-Covid strategy suggests that approach won't work against the 
Omicron variant."

North Korea has turned down offers of vaccinations from the World Health 
Organization, China, and Russia.

Accepting vaccines through the WHO's Covax scheme "requires transparency over 
how vaccines are distributed," Go Myong-hyun, researcher at the Asan 
Institute for Policy Studies told AFP.

"That's why North Korea rejected it," Go said.

North Korea is surrounded by countries that have battled -- or are still 
fighting to control -- significant Omicron-fuelled outbreaks.

South Korea, which has high rates of vaccination, has recently eased almost 
all Covid-19 restrictions, with cases sharply down after a spike in March.

Neighbouring China, the world's only major economy to still maintain a zero-
Covid policy, is battling multiple Omicron outbreaks.

Major Chinese cities, including the financial capital Shanghai, have been 
under strict lockdowns for weeks.

China said Thursday it was "ready to provide full support and assistance to 
North Korea in its fight against the epidemic," foreign ministry spokesman 
Zhao Lijian said.

It appears North Korea will try to avoid China's strict measures, which have 
seen millions of people locked into their apartments for several weeks, 
including in Beijing, said Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute.

But even less harsh measures would create a "severe food shortage and the 
same chaos China is now facing," he said.

Seoul-based specialist site NK News reported that areas of Pyongyang had 
already been locked down for two days, with reports of panic buying.

- Nuke test? -

South Korea's President Yoon Suk-yeol, who was sworn in Tuesday, has vowed to 
get tough with Pyongyang, after five years of failed diplomacy.

After high-profile talks collapsed in 2019, North Korea has doubled-down on 
weapons testing, conducting a blitz of launches so far this year, including 
intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Satellite imagery indicates North Korea is preparing to conduct a nuclear 
test, and the United States has warned this could come as soon as this month.

But the Covid-19 outbreak could potentially disrupt their military programme, 
analysts said.

"There is a possibility of delaying the nuclear test in order to focus on 
overcoming the coronavirus," Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of 
North Korean Studies, told AFP. 

But he said if public fears over an outbreak were to spread, Kim might go 
ahead with a test "to divert this fear to another place".
 

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