Coronavirus: Kim Jong Un tells officials to stay alert

North Korea claims to have no cases of Covid-19 despite links with China

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) meeting in Pyongyang on Thursday. Photograph: STR/AFP via Getty Images

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) meeting in Pyongyang on Thursday. Photograph: STR/AFP via Getty Images

 

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has urged officials to stay alert over the coronavirus threat, warning that complacency risks “unimaginable and irretrievable crisis”.

Despite the warning, Mr Kim has 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 has 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 say the country’s self-imposed lockdown is hurting an economy already battered by stringent US-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile programmes.

The KCNA report said Kim stressed to the politburo meeting of the Workers’ Party “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 Mr 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 Mr Kim at the meeting, which were the first state media images of him in weeks.

Neither Mr Kim nor the ruling party officials wore masks at the meeting.

The North Korean leader’s statement suggests a full border closure with China, its biggest trading partner and economic pipeline, will likely continue despite the toll that is taking on the already heavily sanctioned economy.

According to Chinese data, the North’s exports to China and imports from it both plunged by more than 90 per cent for two consecutive months in March and April.

In May, the North’s trade volume with China increased by about 164 per cent from the month before, suggesting North Korea was trying to restore trade, the IBK Economic Research Institute said in a report.

Cho Hey-sil, a spokeswoman at the South Korean unification ministry, told reporters it remains to be seen whether North Korea’s trade with China will fully resume.

Even before the pandemic, North Korea was grappling with the pain of UN sanctions imposed over its nuclear programme. Its trade volume with China in 2019 was more than halved compared with 2016 figures, after new UN sanctions targeting the North’s major export items such as coal, textiles and seafood were adopted in recent years.

Mr Kim was desperate to win sanctions relief when he engaged in a flurry of diplomacy with the United States, including three summits with US president Donald Trump, in 2018 and 2019.

But those efforts have made little headway since the second Kim-Trump summit in Vietnam in February 2019 ended when Mr Trump rejected Mr Kim’s demands for extensive sanctions relief in return for partial denuclearisation.

Last year, Mr Kim launched an ambitious five-year national development plan, but experts say the coronavirus crisis likely thwarted some of his major economic goals. – PA