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North Korea’s Kim refers to ‘great crisis’ caused by officials’ coronavirus lapse

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un raises a finger while speaking
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a Politburo meeting in Pyongyang on Tuesday.
(Korean Central News Agency)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has berated top officials for coronavirus-prevention failures that caused a “great crisis,” raising the specter of a mass outbreak in a country that would scarcely be able to handle it.

A state media report Wednesday did not specify what the crisis or the “crucial” official lapse was that prompted Kim to call a Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party, but experts said North Korea could be wrestling with a significant setback in its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

So far, North Korea has claimed to have had no coronavirus infections, despite testing thousands of people and sharing a porous border with China. Experts widely doubt the claim and are concerned about any potential outbreak, given the country’s poor health infrastructure.

At the Politburo meeting, Kim used unusually strong language to criticize senior officials for incompetence, irresponsibility and passivity in planning and executing anti-virus measures, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said.

Kim said that “senior officials in charge of important state affairs neglected the implementation of the important decisions of the party on taking organizational, institutional, material, scientific and technological measures as required by the prolonged state emergency epidemic-prevention campaign,” according to KCNA. This “caused a crucial case of creating a great crisis in ensuring the security of the state and safety of the people and entailed grave consequences.”

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The report also said the party recalled an unspecified member of the Politburo’s powerful Presidium, which consists of Kim and four other top officials.

After declaring three years ago that his country had fulfilled its decades-long ambition to become a nuclear power, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un turned his attention to fixing an ailing economy that was undermining his pledge to better the lives of his people.

The reference indicated that Kim may replace his Cabinet Premier Kim Tok Hun, who would be held responsible for failures in the government’s anti-epidemic work, said Hong Min, a senior analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.

“There is no possibility that North Korea will ever admit to an infection. Even if there were mass transmissions, the North will definitely not reveal such developments and will continue to push forward an anti-virus campaign it has claimed to be the greatest,” Hong said.

“But it’s also clear that something significant happened and it was big enough to warrant a reprimanding of senior officials. This could mean mass infections or some sort of situation where a lot of people were put at direct risk of infections.”

Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at South Korea’s private Sejong Institute, expressed a similar view, saying North Korea was potentially dealing with huge coronavirus-related problems in border towns near China, such as Sinuiju or Hyesan. He said the Presidium member whom Kim Jong Un sacked could be Jo Yong Won, a secretary of the Workers’ Party’s Central Committee who had been seen as a fast-rising figure in the leadership circle.

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has faced rumors about his health on previous occasions when he walked with a cane and missed a major state anniversary.

But other experts said Kim could be responding to illicit border trade that defied his lockdown measures or setting the stage for a political shakeup or purge to solidify his grip on power as he navigates perhaps the toughest time of his nine-year rule.

Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, raised the possibility of helping North Korea in the event of a major coronavirus outbreak.

“China and the DPRK have a long tradition of helping each other when they encounter difficulties,” Wang said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “If necessary, China will actively consider providing assistance to the DPRK.”

From the start of the pandemic, North Korea described its anti-virus efforts as a “matter of national existence,” banned tourists and severely curtailed cross-border traffic and trade. The lockdown has further strained an economy already battered by decades of mismanagement and crippling U.S.-led sanctions over the country’s nuclear weapons program.

At a political conference earlier this month, Kim called for officials to brace for prolonged COVID-19 restrictions, indicating that the country isn’t ready to open its borders despite its economic woes.

North Korea has told the World Health Organization that it has not found a single coronavirus infection after testing more than 30,000 people, including many described as having fevers or respiratory symptoms.

North Korea’s extended border controls come amid uncertainties over the country’s vaccination prospects. COVAX, the U.N.-backed program to ship COVID-19 vaccines worldwide, particularly to developing nations, said in February that North Korea could receive 1.9 million doses in the first half of the year, but the plans have been delayed because of global shortages.


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