(ATTN: UPDATES with additional info in last 2 paras)
By Yi Wonju and Chae Yun-hwan
SEOUL, May 12 (Yonhap) -- North Korea on Thursday announced its first case of the omicron variant of COVID-19 and declared the implementation of the "maximum emergency" virus control system, putting an end to its coronavirus-free claim.
The North held a politburo meeting in Pyongyang, with leader Kim Jong-un in attendance, to discuss the country's "most serious emergency" in its antivirus system that had been "firmly defended" for over two years, according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
North Korean authorities conducted an analysis of samples collected from fever-ridden patients on Sunday in Pyongyang and concluded that they were identical to the omicron BA.2 variant, it reported.
The KCNA did not mention the number of cases, but multiple patients appear to have been confirmed.
During the session, Kim vowed to overcome the unexpected crisis and ordered officials to carry out the strict lockdown of all cities and counties across the country to completely block out all possibility of the spread of the virus.
Kim then called for tighter vigilance on all fronts along the borders, the sea and air to prevent a security vacuum in the country's national defense.
"More dangerous enemy of us than the malicious virus are unscientific fear, lack of faith and weak will," he was quoted as saying.
He added the North will "surely overcome the current sudden situation" of the COVID-19 outbreak at all costs as his people have developed awareness and unity through the prolonged struggle against the virus.
Kim also urged officials to carry out the country's economic development plan and construction projects as scheduled despite switching to the maximum prevention system, in an apparent effort to prevent further worsening of its economy.
The North aims to stably manage and prevent the spread of the virus, as well as treat confirmed patients to "block and terminate the source of the malicious epidemics spread," he added.
The political bureau decided to convene the fifth Plenary Meeting of the ruling Workers' Party's eighth Central Committee early next month to review state policies for this year and discuss a "series of important issues," the KCNA said, without further elaboration.
Keen attention is being paid to the potential impact of the formally acknowledged virus outbreak in the impoverished nation with dilapidated health care infrastructure on the regime's reported preparations for another nuclear test.
Some observers here raise the possibility that it will stay away from nuclear testing and other provocations for the time being in order to focus on ramping up antivirus efforts while reaching out to the international community for relevant medical supplies and vaccine assistance.
Asked if the COVID-19 outbreak would affect the North's apparent preparations for a nuclear test, a military official here said, "That's what we will have to pay close attention to."
The infection in the North is presumed to be attributable to the movement of massive crowds during national events, like last month's military parade marking the 90th anniversary of the Korean People's Revolutionary Army, a source said.
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