North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has warned of a “grave incident” linked to the coronavirus pandemic, stoking fears of an outbreak in the isolated country.
The dictator accused senior officials of incompetence in handling North Korea’s efforts to prevent the spread of Covid-19, according to a statement by the state’s Korean Central News Agency.
Officials’ neglect of important party decisions in the face of the health crisis had “caused a grave incident that poses a huge crisis to the safety of the nation and its people”, he was reported as saying.
Kim was speaking at an expanded meeting of the ruling Workers’ party on Tuesday to deal with the “chronic irresponsibility and incompetence” among bureaucrats, KCNA reported.
No further detail was provided on the nature of the incident.
North Korea has claimed zero cases of Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic. In January 2020, Pyongyang moved swiftly to sever most land, sea and air routes to the country and instituted sweeping restrictions on domestic movement.
The cash-strapped state’s health system severely lacks the resources, funding and technology necessary to respond to an uncontrolled Covid-19 outbreak, despite the Kim regime’s arsenal of chemical and nuclear weapons.
According to the World Health Organization’s latest update, as of June 17 North Korea was still reporting “no cases” after testing more than 31,000 citizens for Covid-19. But movement has been further restricted between Pyongyang and the provinces, the update noted.
Kim’s own health has been the subject of intense speculation in recent weeks. The jowly 37-year-old appears to have lost a significant amount of weight. According to an interview published in state media, ordinary North Koreans are worried that the weight loss is a sign of the leader’s suffering.
North Korea has access to jabs via the Covax programme under Gavi, the UN-backed alliance seeking to ensure equitable vaccine access around the world. But the country has stopped short of allowing foreign aid workers and medical experts into the country to help deliver vaccines.
Soo Kim, a former CIA North Korea analyst now at the Rand Corporation, a US think-tank, said the international community had been waiting for Pyongyang to “crack and show greater signs of unease”.
“That Kim chose to blame his cadres — rather than taking responsibility and pursuing concrete steps to correct the situation — may give some indication that Kim takes the virus seriously, but perhaps not to the extent that it will move him to make the right decision,” she said.
However, Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said Kim’s statement “could pave the way to the self-isolated country finally accepting international pandemic assistance”.
Easley added: “Kim’s remark was likely made to justify what he will do next.”
Border closures, plummeting trade, sanctions and a typhoon last year have been blamed for rising food insecurity that sparked fears of a humanitarian crisis in North Korea.
Further worsening the plight of the country’s 25m people, North Korea has been hit by wild swings in currency and food prices in recent months.