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North Korea’s Kim warns of ‘grave incident’ in fight against the coronavirus

State media reported on June 30 that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un chastised officials for pandemic failures that led to an unspecified "huge crisis." (Video: Reuters)

TOKYO — North Korea supreme leader Kim Jong Un has chastised ruling party officials for failures in their anti-virus work that created what he called a "grave incident" that caused a "huge crisis" in the country's battle against covid-19, state media reported Wednesday.

But, health experts said the information was too sketchy to draw any immediate conclusions about whether the coronavirus had entered the country.

North Korea has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep covid-19 at bay, closing its border with China to people and most goods shortly after the pandemic broke out last year, clearly fearing that a serious outbreak could overwhelm the country’s ailing health-care system.

It has not announced any confirmed cases of covid-19, a claim backed by the World Health Organization (WHO) but questioned by U.S. and South Korean officials.

However, the border lockdown has been severely damaging for North Korea’s economy, fueling the worst economic crisis in two decades that has left many people struggling and hungry.

State media did not specify what had happened.

“By neglecting important decisions of the party in its national emergency antivirus fight in preparations for a global health crisis, officials in charge have caused a grave incident that poses a huge crisis to the safety of the nation and its people,” the Korea Central News Agency quoted Kim as saying.

Kim called a meeting of the Politburo of the ruling Workers' Party on Tuesday to address some officials' neglect of duty, including failing to implement important long-term measures to fight the pandemic, KCNA said.

Several Politburo members, secretaries of the central committee, and officials of several state agencies were replaced at the meeting, KCNA reported.

Shortly after the pandemic spread through China at the start of 2020, North Korea closed its border, cutting off its own economic lifeline, placed foreigners under effective house arrest and severely restricted domestic travel.

As a result, information about the pandemic has been extremely hard to come by, although unconfirmed reports of areas placed under lockdowns and quarantine last year fueled suspicion that some cases might have emerged.

Last July, North Korea did declare a state of emergency and locked down the border city of Kaesong after a former defector crossed back into the country from South Korea with suspected symptoms of covid-19, although tests were reported to have been inconclusive.

Yet the ruling party continues to hold events and meetings, with officials regularly seen without face masks, suggesting the pandemic has largely been kept at bay. The border with China had even begun to open to trade again, but recently clamped shut again.

According to the WHO’s latest report issued this month, over 30,000 people have been tested for the coronavirus in North Korea, and all the results were negative.

But that success has come at a huge price for the economy. Earlier this month, Kim warned that the country's food situation had become “tense,” amid mounting reports of shortages.

“Reading between the lines, my sense is senior official(s) may have turned a blind eye to some illegal border activities (smuggling or trade),” Chad O’Carroll, the founder of the NK News service tweeted. “Somehow, this may have led to COVID-19 exposure (not necessarily infection).”

“This might be why DPRK borders mysteriously closed again,” he added, using the acronym for the country’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

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