How Notoriously Isolated North Korea Got Its First Suspected COVID-19 Case

The hermit kingdom just declared a national emergency and put a city on lockdown. The person suspected of bringing the virus to the country however, might be the bigger story.
Junhyup Kwon
Seoul, KR
North Korea Kim Jong Un Covid-19
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un. Photo By STR / KCNA VIA KNS / AFP

North Korea declared a maximum national emergency, issued a top class alert, and imposed a full lock down on the border city of Kaesong after discovering what it says is the country’s first suspected coronavirus case.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un presided over the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK)’s emergency enlarged meeting the day before, in regards to the situation, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Sunday.


A North Korean who had defected to South Korea three years ago is said to have returned on July 19 and the person “is suspected to have been infected with the vicious virus [the coronavirus],” KCNA reported.

This is based on results “from several medical check-ups of the secretion of that person’s upper respiratory organ and blood.”

But the person suspected to have the virus is also facing serious allegations in South Korea. An official from the Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police Agency confirmed to VICE News that the person is a 24-year-old man who crossed the border in 2017 and is accused of sexually assaulting a woman at his home in Gimpo, in Gyeonggi Province, South Korea in mid-June.

He is facing rape allegations but the case has not yet been sent to the public prosecutor’s office.

A YouTuber who also defected to the South and who claims she was close to him, said that he returned to the North to avoid punishment for the allegations against him.

South Korea’s military said in a press briefing on Monday that its Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) has identified the location where the person defected, around Ganghwado, an island west of Incheon and Gimpo.

JCS found an abandoned bag believed to be the defector’s. He is suspected to have passed through a water drain underneath a fence to cross over to the North, JCS said. JCS is still figuring out the actual date of defection, based on various conditions such as the weather.


According to KCNA, the defector was put under strict quarantine as a primary step, and all the people in Kaesong who had contact with him as well as all those who have been to the city in the last five days are being thoroughly investigated, given medical examinations, and put under quarantine.

The hermit kingdom has no confirmed cases of COVID-19 so far despite the fact that the country shares its borders with South Korea and China. The country was still testing for the virus but a World Health Organization (WHO) representative claimed there are still no confirmed cases.

“Despite the intense preventive anti-epidemic measures taken in all fields throughout the country and tight closure of all the channels for the last six months, we are in a critical situation in which the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country,” North Korea’s leader Kim said.

According to the state-run agency, Kim added that “he took the preemptive measure of totally blocking Kaesong and isolated each district and region from the other” on July 24.

North Korea also said it will discipline the military officials responsible for border crossings.

In the meeting, Kim and the Commission spent time talking about poor manning of the borders and are awaiting the findings “of an intensive investigation and administer severe punishment and take necessary measures.”

11 North Korean defectors returned to the North over the past five years, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification revealed during a press briefing today. Three defectors in 2015, four in 2016, and another four in 2017.

Meanwhile, some 33,000 North Korean people defected and entered South Korea from 1990s to this March this year, according to the ministry.

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