North Korea Covid outbreak fears after Kim Jong-un warns of ‘huge crisis’ in ‘antivirus fight’

The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has sacked several senior party officials over a “grave” coronavirus incident that had threatened public safety, fuelling speculation that the coronavirus has breached the country’s defences.

“In neglecting important decisions by the party that called for organisational, material and science and technological measures to support prolonged anti-epidemic work in face of a global health crisis, the officials in charge have caused a grave incident that created a huge crisis for the safety of the country and its people,” the state-run KCNA news agency quoted Kim as telling a meeting of the ruling party’s politburo.

KCNA did not explain the nature of the transgressions, but analysts believe Kim’s outburst indicate North Korea is no longer free of Covid-19.

North Korea closed its borders with China and Russia at the start of the pandemic, halted international air travel and imposed strict limits on domestic travel. It has told the World Health Organization it has not found a single case of Covid-19 after testing more than 30,000 people.

That claim has been greeted with scepticism by the international community, with experts warning that the country’s threadbare health services are ill-equipped to deal with an outbreak.

Earlier this month, Kim called for officials to brace for prolonged pandemic restrictions, indicating that he had no plans to ease border restrictions, despite the harm they were inflicting on an economy already battered by natural disasters and international sanctions imposed in response to the regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

North Korea also faces a wait for vaccines. Covax, the global vaccine-sharing initiative, said in February that the North could receive 1.9 million doses in the first half of the year, but those plans have been delayed due to global shortages.

Kim told the meeting on Tuesday that the party officials had shown a “lack of ability”, and accused them of “self-protectionism and passiveness”.

Members of the presidium of the politburo – the highest decision-making body of the ruling Workers’ party – and the politburo were recalled and replacements named at the meeting on Tuesday, KCNA said.

Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector who is now a researcher at the World Institute for North Korea Studies in Seoul, said the report “basically means North Korea has confirmed cases”.

Ahn told Agence France-Presse: “The fact that the politburo discussed this, and that the KCNA reported it, signals Pyongyang is probably in need of international aid.

“Otherwise they would not have done this, as it inevitably involves acknowledging the regime’s own failure in its anti-epidemic efforts.”

North Korea’s attempts to prevent a Covid-19 outbreak have contributed to one of the worst economic crises in its 73-year history, amid shortages of food and medicines and warnings of rising unemployment and homelessness.

Border closures mean trade with China has plummeted, while international aid workers and many diplomats have left. This month, Pyongyang admitted it was battling a food crisis after Kim, who last year tearfully thanked North Koreans for their virus-prevention efforts, warned that the country faced its “worst-ever situation”.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said Kim’s comments “indicate that health conditions are already deteriorating inside the country.

“Kim will likely find scapegoats for the incident, purging disloyal officials and blaming their ideological lapses. This may provide Pyongyang justification for demanding that citizens hunker down more, but it could also be political preparation for accepting vaccines from abroad.”

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