WHO 'Awaiting Information' About North Korea's First Possible COVID-19 Case

The World Health Organization is aware of North Korea's recent report of an individual possibly infected with COVID-19 crossing the border, and it has already sent medical supplies there, but the global health agency has still yet to confirm any cases of the disease in the closed-off country that has long claimed to have kept the virus out.

"WHO is awaiting information from the DPRK Ministry of Public Health on [the] case reported in media," according to a WHO statement using an abbreviation for North Korea's official name: the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"The ministry updates WHO periodically on the measures being taken for COVID-19, with the latest received on 16 July," the statement added.

The official Korean Central News Agency reported Sunday that supreme leader Kim Jong Un convened an enlarged emergency meeting of his ruling Korean Workers' Party Central Committee in response to "a dangerous situation in Kaesong City that may lead to a deadly and destructive disaster."

The report explained that "an emergency event happened in Kaesong City, where a runaway who went to the south three years ago, a person who is suspected to have been infected with the vicious virus returned on July 19 after illegally crossing the demarcation line."

"The anti-epidemic organization said that as an uncertain result was made from several medical check-ups of the secretion of that person's upper respiratory organ and blood, the person was put under strict quarantine as a primary step and all the persons in Kaesong City who contacted that person and those who have been to the city in the last five days are being thoroughly investigated, given medical examination and put under quarantine," the report added.

Kim warned the new coronavirus "could be said to have entered the country" and ordered a complete closure of Kaesong and for its districts to be isolated for one another. The gathering unanimously agreed on "shifting from the state emergency anti-epidemic system to the maximum emergency system."

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People wearing face masks walk away after paying their respects before the statues of the late North Korean supreme leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on the occasion of 67th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War armistice agreement, in Pyongyang on July 27. Pyongyang, often isolated among the international community, now finds itself as a part of a global battle against COVID-19. KIM WON JIN/AFP/Getty Images

South Korean military officials on Monday confirmed that a 24-year-old man who had fled from North Korea in 2017 had returned to his home country by swimming through a drain on Ganghwa Island. Both North and South Korean officials separately promised to discipline their border units for failing to detect the crossing.

North Korea is one of only about a dozen countries to have not reported a single case of the new coronavirus disease that has infected more than 16 million people across the globe. The country, one of the first to seal its borders with China as news emerged of a new, infectious disease rapidly spreading there at the beginning of this year, has taken intensive lockdown, quarantine and public health awareness steps to prevent a COVID-19 crisis.

The country's tightly controlled information apparatus has made claims that are hard to independently verify, however, and the WHO is one of the few international health organizations to have a working relationship with Pyongyang.

"DPR Korea reports it is taking multiple measures for COVID-19," the WHO told Newsweek. "As of 16 July, DPR Korea reported testing 1,211 people for COVID-19. All tested negative. It reports that 696 people, all nationals, are under quarantine."

The WHO said it had previously provided 900 items of personal protection equipment as well as laboratory reagents to North Korea and that primers and probes for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines to facilitate 1,000 COVID-19 tests have arrived in North Korea after being sent by the WHO's South-East Asia Regional Office. They were set to arrive in the capital Pyongyang next week, according the statement said.

"There are 15 laboratories designated to test COVID-19 in the country including provincial laboratories. The Central Hygiene Anti-Epidemic Institute remains the reference laboratory," the WHO said, adding that the agency "continues to regularly share guidelines" with North Korea's Ministry of Public Health, where they are "adapted to the local context."

Official Korean Workers' Party Central Committee newspaper Rodong Sinmun published an editorial Monday calling on civilians and officials of all levels alike to adhere to the new emergency measures being implemented across the country.

Monday also marked the 67th anniversary of the armistice that halted the three-year war between the two Koreas, a conflict that has technically never ended. Pyongyang and Seoul set out for an ambitious path toward reconciliation in 2018, but ties have again deteriorated as denuclearization-for-peace negotiations between North Korea and the United States, South Korea's ally, stalled.

Both Koreas marked the occasion in separate military ceremonies on Monday. In Pyongyang, Kim visited the Fatherland Liberation War Martyrs Cemetery to lay a flower before the graves of fallen Korean People's Army soldiers.

"Saying that the undying feats of the defenders of the fatherland in the 1950s, who provided the valuable mental heritage of the revolution amid the flames of the hard-fought war, would shine long in history, he expressed belief that the heroic fighting spirit of the fallen fighters would be carried forward as the eternal soul of socialist Korea," the Korean Central News Agency reported.

Kim has returned to the public eye after a series of absences that gained significant media attention and spurred international speculation. The young ruler on Monday also handed out commemorative pistols to leading military officials, who "made a solemn oath to cherish the Party's trust and expectation all the time, direct all their efforts into turning the entire army into the elite forces and uphold the great cause of our Party with full military preparedness."