North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said lapses in his country’s anti-epidemic campaign had caused a “major crisis” that had caused “severe consequences,” state media reported on Wednesday.
Kim did not clarify whether the incident meant an outbreak of Covid-19 in North Korea, where authorities have so far claimed they have not found any cases of the virus. But state media reported that the incident was serious enough for Kim to hold a meeting of the politburo of his ruling Workers’ Party on Tuesday, during which Kim reshuffled the party’s top leadership cabinet.
Kim said that senior officials neglected the implementation of anti-virus measures and created “a great crisis in ensuring state security and people’s safety.”
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim cited the unspecified incident as an example when he reprimanded party officials for their “ignorance, obstruction and irresponsibility.” She added that during the meeting, a detailed report was prepared on officials accused of neglecting their duties in combating the epidemic and improving the economic life of the people.
He pointed out that there will be some “legal” consequences for those responsible. The news agency reported that some members of the Politburo and its presidential body and some Labor Party secretaries were replaced. No other details were mentioned. In North Korea, all power is concentrated in the monolithic leadership of Mr. Kim, and he has often reshaped the party and military elites, holding them responsible for policy failures.
North Korea officially claims to be free of Covid-19, although outside experts remain skeptical, citing the country’s public health system and a lack of extensive testing. But North Korea, aware of its vulnerability to epidemics, has also imposed some of the harshest measures against the spread of the virus.
Last year, it created a buffer zone along the border with China, and issued a shoot-to-kill order to stop unauthorized crossings, according to South Korean and US officials. South Korean politicians briefed by their government’s National Intelligence Service last year said North Korea had executed an official for violating a trade embargo imposed to combat the virus.
In July, when a South Korean man defected to the North, North Korea declared a national emergency out of fear that he might have brought the virus. But Kim also showed confidence that at least his inner circles were virus-free, occasionally presiding over meetings of party elites where no one wore masks. During the meeting on Tuesday, Kim urged party officials to redouble his efforts to build a “self-reliant” economy. With North Korea’s economy hit hard by the pandemic, Kim acknowledged that his five-year growth plan had failed and instructed his officials to launch a “hard march” through tough economic times. This month he warned of a looming food shortage.
Tuesday’s party meeting “suggests that the situation in the country has worsened beyond self-reliance,” said Leif Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Iowa Women’s University in Seoul.
“Pyongyang may prepare a domestic political discourse to allow foreign vaccines to be accepted and to help fight epidemics,” he said. “Kim is likely to blame a scapegoat for this incident, as he purges disloyal government officials and replaces them with others deemed more capable.”