Kim Jong-un urges North Koreans to keep up virus fight

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un urged officials to maintain alertness against the coronavirus, warning that complacency risked “unimaginable and irretrievable crisis”, state media said yesterday.

Despite the warning, Kim reaffirmed North Korea’s claim to not have had a single case of COVID-19, telling a ruling party meeting on Thursday that the country has “thoroughly prevented the inroad of the malignant virus” despite the worldwide health crisis, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

Outsiders widely doubt North Korea escaped the pandemic entirely, given its poor health infrastructure and close trade and travel ties to China, where the coronavirus emerged late last year.

Describing its anti-virus efforts as a “matter of national existence”, North Korea earlier this year shut down nearly all cross-border traffic, banned tourists and mobilised health workers to quarantine anyone with similar symptoms to the disease.

Experts said the country’s self-imposed lockdown is hurting an economy already battered by stringent United States (US)-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile programmes.

People walk in the Ryomyong street in Pyongyang, North Korea. PHOTO: AP

The KCNA report said Kim during the politburo meeting of the Workers’ Party “stressed the need to maintain maximum alert without a slight self-complacence or relaxation” as the virus continues to spread in neighbouring countries.

The agency said Kim sharply criticised inattentiveness among officials and violations of emergency anti-virus rules and warned that a “hasty relief of anti-epidemic measures will result in unimaginable and irretrievable crisis”.

The North’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper published several photos of Kim at the meeting, which were the first state media images of him in weeks. Neither Kim nor the ruling party officials who participated were wearing masks.

In its weekly updates to the World Health Organization (WHO), North Korea’s Ministry of Public Health said the country has tested 922 people for the coronavirus as of June 19 and that all of the results were negative, according to WHO’s representative to the North Edwin Salvador.

In an email sent to The Associated Press (AP), Salvador said North Korea told the WHO it has so far released 25,551 people from quarantine and that as many as 255 people remain isolated. “They are labourers working at the seaport and Sinuiju-Dandong land border,” Salvador said, referring to an area on the North Korea-China border. “They have been quarantined after handling goods arriving into the country.”