North Korea has been one of the few places to say it has not recorded any cases of Covid-19.
But its leader, Kim Jong Un, now claims his secret country faces “a great crisis” linked to the pandemic, blaming it on the mismanagement of bureaucrats in his own party, state media reported on Wednesday.
Relatively little is known about the coronavirus situation in North Korea, a totalitarian state where the Kim regime controls the media and most other aspects of public life.
Officials in the United States and elsewhere have questioned whether North Korea has actually escaped the virus. The only other non-island country to claim this absence of Covid is authoritarian and secretive Turkmenistan in Central Asia.
Shedding rare light on his own country, Kim criticized “senior officials in charge of important affairs of state” who “neglected” certain unspecified decisions related to the “emergency epidemic prevention campaign associated with the global health crisis ”, the state-controlled KCNA. the news agency reported on Wednesday.
Although Kim did not directly use the words “Covid-19”, according to KCNA, he said the actions of his officials had caused “a great crisis” in terms “of ensuring the security of the state and the personal safety “, warning that this had” had serious consequences “.
Kim was speaking on Tuesday at a meeting of the political bureau of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the ruling party in North Korea founded by Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung.
During the meeting, Kim also replaced several members of the political bureau, although the KCNA report did not specify whether this was related to the accusations of “chronic irresponsibility and incompetence” he had leveled against the politicians. party cadres at the meeting.
Kim did not go into the details of the “crisis” he described. As is often the case, it is up to outside officials and experts to try to decipher the information published by KCNA.
Asked about Kim’s comments, South Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun said officials in Seoul were aware of the report but had nothing to add.
“During this era of pandemic, we have publicly expressed our willingness to help, ranging from PCR testing to anything you can imagine,” he told reporters.
Isolated and largely impoverished, North Korea told the World Health Organization it had found no cases despite having tested more than 30,000 people. Experts disagree on the credibility of this point.
“It’s a closed nation, so we can’t emphatically say they have cases, but we’re pretty sure they do,” US Army General Robert Abrams told reporters. at the Pentagon last year.
North Korea has imposed drastic restrictions on foreign trade, travel and internal movement that would not be open to other non-authoritarian states. The South Korean spy agency said the Kim’s regime even had two people executed as part of its frantic attempt to keep the virus out.
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“The ‘crisis’ Kim mentioned may only be a minor violation of quarantine measures,” said Andrei Lankov, professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and director of NK News, which covers North Korea. “Or maybe they’ve had a really big outbreak, they’re afraid they can’t get it under control and that’s how Kim is warning her own people.”
Other North Korean observers believe this may have been a message to the outside world.
Whether it has suffered epidemics or not, the pandemic has hit the North Korean economy, coming as a triple whammy alongside major flooding and international sanctions.
This month, during an appearance at the plenary meeting of the Workers’ Party Central Committee, Kim warned that North Korea’s food situation “is now getting tense.” Kim’s own health has been the subject of international speculation after he appeared in recent photographs as having lost weight, and a North Korean was quoted by KCNA as saying he feared he had the look “emaciated”.
Some experts believe Kim’s statement on the pandemic this week could lay the groundwork for calling for more help from China, Pyongyang’s tough ally. Or he could telegraph his need for Covid-19 vaccine donations.
North Korea was initially scheduled to receive nearly 2 million vaccines from COVAX, a global charitable vaccine-sharing program co-managed by the WHO.
That figure was then lowered to 1.7 million doses to be delivered in May. But the supply issues that plagued the COVAX project mean that, like many other poor countries around the world, these have yet to be delivered.