North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2019. Photo: Manan Vatsayana/AFP via Getty Images

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered Kaesong City, near the border with South Korea, to be placed on lockdown and declared a "maximum emergency" because of a suspected coronavirus case, state media reported on Sunday.

Why it matters: If the person is found to have COVID-19, it would mark the first time Pyongyang has publicly confirmed having a case in the country. The isolated state has previously insisted it's free of the pandemic, although experts have cast doubt on the claim.

  • There's concern that an outbreak in North Korea would devastate the country's poor medical infrastructure and trigger a humanitarian disaster.

What's happening: The official Korean Central News Agency reported the suspected case involved a person who returned to North Korea by crossing the Military Demarcation Line last Sunday after defecting to South Korea three years ago.

  • The person's coronavirus result test result was "uncertain," but they were "put under strict quarantine as a primary step and all the persons in Kaesong City who contacted that person and those who have been to the city in the last five days are being thoroughly investigated, given medical examination and put under quarantine," KCNA said.
  • Kim has also declared a state of emergency in Kaesong City and said he "took the preemptive measure of totally blocking Kaesong City and isolating each district and region from the other within July 24 afternoon just after receiving the report on it."

Of note: North Korea began to take precautions against COVID-19 in January, closing its borders, pausing business with China and quarantining all of its diplomats for a month in Pyongyang, per the New York Times.

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