|North Korean quarantine officials march during a military parade at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, April 25, in commemoration of the 90th anniversary of founding of Korean People's Revolutionary Army. Screenshot from North Korea's Korean Central Television|
By Ko Dong-hwan
While South Korea's central disease control authority will be lifting the face mask mandate on May 2, as the daily numbers of COVID-19 infections have been gradually declining from their peak in March, the situation in North Korea appears to be quite the opposite.
North Korean daily newspaper Rodong Shimmun, which is the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, released a story on May 1 headlined, "Let's stay vigilant and strictly abide by quarantine regulations."
The story said that new variants that keep emerging are raising international concerns. Variants such as Omicron have increasingly infected or killed people in North Korea and countries nearby, making the disease's highly contagious situation very bad, according to the report.
Observers have said that "countries nearby" referred to China, where authorities in certain cities have been forcibly quarantining those infected with the disease as part of the country's zero-COVID strategy. According to reports, North Korea had resumed operating trains crossing its border into China but, as the disease has spread to the Chinese city of Dandong in Liaoning Province bordering North Korea, North Korea has shut down the train service again in order to protect the country from infections.
The North Korean report, citing what it claimed as advice from the World Health Organization, urged citizens to wear face masks and ventilate indoor areas as strains following the initial Omicron variant keep emerging.
"Not even a tiny crack or mistake is allowed when it comes to emergency quarantining," the report said. "Even if the mistake was as negligible as the tip of a needle, it could deal a critical blow to the country's quarantine bases. Emergency quarantining is currently the foremost priority in our country."
Observers say North Korea's key mandate to keep the public safe from the disease is being done by strictly controlling the public. The country has yet to provide the first jab of vaccinations to its citizens and has been pushing people to abide by its quarantine measures, according to reports.
South Korea, on the other hand, is taking a major step toward returning to normalcy by lifting the outdoor face mask requirement on May 2. However, the measure still stands for large gatherings of 50 or more, both outdoors and indoors.
The country previously lifted most social distancing measures on April 18, allowing more opportunities for private gatherings and increased business operating hours.
The country began requiring face masks to be worn nationwide in October 2020 due to the rising risks presented by COVID-19.
On Sunday, South Korea reported 37,771 new COVID-19 infections, marking a steady decline from the peak in mid-March, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA). Sunday's tally is a marked drop from Saturday's 43,286 and Friday's 50,568.
Daily counts had, at one point, topped 600,000 in March before coming down to five digits in about a month.
As of midnight Saturday, 44.54 million people, or 86.8 percent of the population, had been vaccinated with the first two shots, and 33.12 million people had received the first booster shots, representing 64.5 percent. The number of those that received the second booster shots came to 2.11 million, the KDCA said.