North Korea has imposed a five-day lockdown on its capital city as it battles an increase in “recurrent flu and other respiratory diseases” amid a cold spell, according to the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang.
A North Korean government notice that the embassy posted on its Facebook account on Wednesday said Pyongyang had ordered a “special anti-epidemic period” through Sunday. It advised all foreign diplomatic missions to keep their employees indoors, have their temperatures taken four times a day and report the results to a hospital by phone. There was no mention of a specific plan of action for regular citizens.
Any goods the diplomats need can be ordered and delivered to the embassies, the notice said.
The statement made no mention of the coronavirus, although the North’s state media said on Thursday that its health authorities were taking precautionary measures to “cope with the daily-worsening world health crisis.” It was also unclear whether the lockdown covered areas beyond Pyongyang.
Although North Korea claimed in August that it had eradicated the coronavirus, it has continued to emphasize anti-pandemic strategies. The country’s chronically malnourished people are prone to infectious diseases, according to health experts. Amid a cold snap that has gripped the Korean Peninsula this week, the North’s state media reported on Thursday that health authorities were redoubling their efforts to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, including influenza.
North Korea has shut its borders during the pandemic and shunned offers of international aid, fearing that outside help might bring in Covid-19. But UNICEF has been able to send supplies for its humanitarian programs there, including vaccines for tuberculosis and other diseases and special food for severely malnourished children.
Sixteen shipping containers of medical supplies, therapeutic milk and other nutritional products arrived in North Korea in early January, said Shima Islam, a UNICEF official in Bangkok. Last week, nine shipping containers arrived there with TB-related supplies and syringes for health facilities. Still, the global relief organization held out hope that North Korea would reopen its border so it can scale up its humanitarian operations there, as a continuing food crisis and resulting belt-tightening afflict the country.
For the first two years of the pandemic, North Korea claimed to have no Covid-19 cases. Then in May last year, it reported an outbreak for the first time, announcing a “maximum emergency” and locking down all of its cities and counties. Three months later, its leader, Kim Jong-un, claimed that the country had brought the outbreak to an end without vaccines.
But outside experts have been skeptical about the North’s Covid claims, in part because the isolated, impoverished country does not have enough testing kits or laboratories to accurately track a major outbreak. Although the country has reported 4.7 million cases of high fever during the outbreak, it has never said how many were confirmed Covid-19 infections.
In recent weeks there have been signs that North Korea was mobilizing large crowds to rehearse a major military parade. Feb. 8 marks the anniversary of the founding of the North Korean military, and Mr. Kim has often staged military parades during major holidays. But as past “superspreader” events the world over have shown, large gatherings risk broadening the spread of infectious diseases.