North Korea Hasn’t Administered Any COVID Vaccines. It Just Reported Its First Outbreak.

Experts are worried the hermit kingdom could become the epicentre of new COVID variants, as Kim Jong Un orders the nation into lockdown.
Gavin Butler
Melbourne, AU
covid prevention north korea
A staff member of the Pyongyang Jang Chol Gu University of Commerce sprays disinfectant in a campus building as part of preventative measures against COVID-19. Photo: KIM Won Jin / AFP, via Getty Images

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered a lockdown of all cities across the nation as the state announces for the very first time that COVID-19 has been detected within the borders of the hermit kingdom.

Authorities elevated the country’s national quarantine measures to “maximum emergency” on Thursday after the BA.2 Omicron variant was detected in Pyongyang. Kim subsequently ordered “all cities and counties of the whole country to thoroughly lock down their areas” in a bid to “flawlessly and perfectly block the spread” of the virus, according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).


The Politburo of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the ruling party’s highest decision-making body, described the outbreak as a “grave situation.” Public and state security and armed forces would, it added, “accept the instructions of the state emergency epidemic prevention command as the demand … and thoroughly implement them.”

Until today, Pyongyang had staunchly denied the presence of any confirmed COVID cases within North Korea—claims that were widely doubted by experts in the U.S., Japan, and other countries. That would have made it one of only three countries in the world to remain completely COVID-free, alongside Turkmenistan and Tuvalu, a small island nation in the South Pacific with a population of just under 12,000. North Korea, by comparison, boasts a population of more than 25 million.

Kim’s regime has also refused offers of vaccines from the outside world, pledging instead to fight the pandemic in “our style.” In September 2021, UNICEF, which manages the global supply of COVID vaccines as part of the COVAX program, claimed that the North Korean government rejected roughly 3 million doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine, offered at no cost, saying they should be sent to severely affected countries instead. It also rejected 2 million doses of AstraZeneca, due to apparent concerns about potential side effects.


North Korea is currently one of only two countries in the world, alongside Eritrea, that has not administered vaccines to its population—a troubling distinction that makes this recent outbreak all the more worrying, both for those within the country and the global community at large. In March, a report by a panel of experts convened by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies warned that North Korea was at high risk of becoming the epicentre of new COVID variants due to its low vaccine access and uncertain immunity levels.

At the time of writing, North Korea has not released any details about case numbers or source of infection. Kim reportedly called for officials to “quickly cure the infections” and “eradicate the source of the virus” as fast as possible.

Junhyup Kwon contributed reporting.

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