North Korea tells foreigners not to leave capital city amid coronavirus fears

A South Korean army soldier passes by a TV showing a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, June 24, 2020. Kim suspended his military's plans to take unspecified retaliatory action against South Korea, state media said Wednesday, possibly slowing a pressure campaign against its rival amid stalled nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration. The Korean letters read: "Strengthening deterrence of war." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
A South Korean army soldier wearing a face covering passes a TV showing an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (AP)

North Korea has told foreigners living in the capital city Pyongyang that they are not permitted to leave, following the possible first official case of coronavirus in the country.

Last week, North Korea declared a state of emergency and introduced tougher curbs against the virus after it locked down the town of Kaesong, on the border with the South, to tackle the potential COVID-19 outbreak.

Now the country’s foreign ministry has restricted the movements of foreigners in Pyongyang, as well as banning them from holding large meetings and enforcing wearing face coverings.

State television reports showed people in protective gear disinfecting buildings and surfaces around the capital city.

Temperature checks using infrared thermometers, hand-washing facilities and sanitiser dispensers were in place in public locations including shopping malls, restaurants and hotels, the World Health Organization said in a statement.

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, declared an emergency and lockdown on the border town of Kaesong this week after state media claimed a person suspected of having coronavirus had illegally crossed the border from the South.

The KCNA state media said: “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 19 July after illegally crossing the demarcation line.”

Kim described the incident as a “critical situation in which the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country”.

North Korea has previously claimed to have no cases of coronavirus, although the country is notoriously secretive and the claim is difficult to verify.

However, the case that has prompted Pyongyang to take action has been described as “an ice-breaking moment” by Choo Jae-woo, a professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul.

People wearing masks walk in the Ryomyong street in Pyongyang, North Korea Friday, July 3, 2020. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un urged officials to maintain alertness against the coronavirus, warning that complacency risked “unimaginable and irretrievable crisis,” state media said Friday. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)
People wearing masks walk in the Ryomyong street in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP)

He said: “It could be reaching out to the world for help. Perhaps for humanitarian assistance.”

Cho Han-bum, a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, told the Guardian that the North could be “pointing the blame at an ‘imported case’ from South Korea”, using it as a way to accept financial aid from the South.

Earlier this year, North Korea closed down most cross-border traffic and banned foreign tourists in an attempt to keep the country clear of COVID-19.

Coronavirus: what happened today

Click here to sign up to the latest news and information with our daily Catch-up newsletter