North Korea outbreak fear as Chinese border city locked down

Nicola Smith
Students in Pyongyang have their temperatures checked  - Jon Chol Jin/AP

China has enforced a lockdown on a city bordering North Korea, raising suspicions about a coronavirus outbreak in the isolated country. 

Residential compounds have been closed and transportation shut down in Shulan, a city of 700,000 in the north-eastern province of Jilin, state broadcaster China Central Television reported on Sunday. 

Students who already had returned to school, were sent back home again to study, and the city’s threat level has been raised from medium to high risk. 

As of Saturday, Jilin province had reported a total of 105 locally transmitted Covid-19 cases and 19 imported ones. There were 11 new coronavirus cases in Shulan on Saturday, local health authorities said.

North Korea closed its borders in January when Covid-19 first began to take hold in China, and has consistently stated that nobody inside the country has been infected. 

But with rampant smuggling by black market traders along the porous 880-mile border, this assertion has been met with growing scepticism. General Robert Adams, the top US military commander in South Korea, in April called it an “impossible claim".

Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, over the weekend offered to provide support to North Korea in fighting the pandemic, in response to praise from Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, over China’s “success” in responding to Covid-19.

It was Kim's first formal message to China since returning into the public eye after an almost three-week absence that led to speculation about his health condition or whether he was taking shelter from the coronavirus. 

Mr Xi noted that counter-virus measures taken by Pyongyang "are leading to positive progress" and said he was ready to enhance cooperation with North Korea and provide "as much support as its capacity allows," reported the Xinhua news agency.

China has already sent an unspecified number of Covid-19 test kits to its neighbour, according to NK News, a website specialising in North Korean affairs. 

The site also reported signs of “panic-buying” food staples in Pyongyang last month, suggesting that empty shelves could have been caused by stricter Covid-19 measures.