North Korean leader Kim Jong Un berated top officials for failing to prevent the coronavirus, resulting in a “great crisis,” using strong language that raised the prospect of a mass breakout in a country that would be ill-equipped to handle it.
The state media story on Wednesday did not say what “critical” lapse prompted Kim to summon the ruling Workers’ Party Politburo meeting, but experts warned the North could be facing a serious setback in its pandemic fight.
Despite testing thousands of people and sharing a porous border with China, North Korea has claimed to have had no coronavirus infections thus far. Given the country’s weak health infrastructure, experts broadly mistrust the assertion and are concerned about any potential outbreak.
Kim chastised senior officials at the Politburo meeting for alleged incompetence, carelessness, and passivity in planning and implementing anti-virus measures in the midst of the pandemic, according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
Kim said “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 the 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.”
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.
The reference indicated 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, shared a similar perspective, claiming that the North is potentially dealing with massive virus-related problems in border towns near China such as Sinuiju and Hyesan. He speculated that the Presidium member sacked by Kim Jong Un could be Jo Yong Won, a secretary of the Workers’ Party’s Central Committee and a rising figure in Pyongyang’s leadership circle.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said it had no immediate information to share about the North Korean report and would not make any assumptions about the country’s virus situation.
North Korea described its anti-virus efforts as a “matter of national existence” from the start of the pandemic, banning tourists, jettisoning diplomats, and severely restricting cross-border traffic and trade. The lockdown has strained an economy that has already been battered by decades of mismanagement and crippling U.S.-led sanctions over the country’s nuclear weapons program.
Kim called for officials to brace for extended COVID-19 restrictions earlier this month at a political conference, indicating that the country, despite its economic woes, is not ready to open its borders anytime soon.
North Korea has told the World Health Organization that it has not found a single coronavirus infection despite testing over 30,000 people, many of whom have fevers or respiratory symptoms.
The North’s increased border controls come amid concerns about the country’s vaccination prospects. COVAX, the United Nations-backed program that ships COVID-19 vaccines around the world, stated in February that the North could receive 1.9 million doses in the first half of the year, but the plans have been pushed back due to global shortages.