STORY: The reclusive state called the outbreak the "gravest national emergency" and ordered a national lockdown, with state media saying an Omicron variant had been detected in the capital, Pyongyang.
North Korea had never confirmed a COVID infection before Thursday although South Korean and U.S. officials have said there could have been earlier cases in the isolated country, given its trade and travel with China before it sealed its border to block the virus in early 2020.
“There were several important events in North Korea in April (that thousands of people attended), so it could have been widespread already or it might spread further," director of the North Korean Research Division at the Korea Institute for National Unification, Hong Min, told Reuters.
The first public admission of COVID infections highlights the potential for a major crisis in a country that has refused international help with vaccination and kept its borders shut while aggressively pursuing a ballistic missile programme.
"They may have disclosed (the confirmed cases) intentionally now to open possible options such as reconsidering getting them (vaccines) which were allocated by COVAX or receiving international aid," said Hong.