This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Authorities in North Korea have purged a local government official for allowing a coronavirus quarantine center to operate at reduced capacity at a time when Pyongyang is trying to maximize defenses against the deadly virus, sources in the country told RFA.
North Korea publicly claims it is virus free, but it has employed strict measures to prevent the spread of the virus through the country, including locking down cities and counties, cancelling major cultural events, and forbidding travel between provinces.
In November 2020, the government upgraded the country’s “emergency quarantine posture,” in place since the beginning of the pandemic, to a policy of “ultra-high-level emergency quarantine measures,” all while telling the international community that it had not confirmed a single case.
The purged official was the head of a county-level office of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party in North Pyongan province, in the country’s northwest. Unconfirmed reports of his execution are now making other local officials nervous.
“In February, the head of the party organization in Uiju county was purged for the ‘crime’ of having disobeyed the Highest Dignity’s order to maximize the coronavirus emergency quarantine,” a North Pyongan official told RFA’s Korean Service Monday, using an honorific term to refer to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“They say he was quietly executed under the direction of the Central Party, but this is not confirmed,” said the source, who requested anonymity for professional reasons.
According to the source, the purge came after the Central Committee received an anonymous complaint from another Uiju county official.
“The complaint said that the head of the party organization gave orders to reduce the capacity of Uiju’s quarantine facilities for suspected coronavirus patients,” said the source.
“The Central Party then dispatched a team to investigate the case, and they found that Uiju’s quarantine facility was not operating properly,” the source said.
Uiju county had been under financial stress at the time, and had to make some cutbacks, the source explained.
“They had insufficient operating funds. The county’s quarantine authorities proposed to the county party that they would tell patients with mild symptoms to self-isolate in their homes, with the high-fever patients using the quarantine center,” said the source.
“They reduced the capacity of the quarantine facility with approval. The official who approved the plan was the head of the county’s party organization,” the source said.
Operating the center at reduced capacity went against directives not to be lax with quarantine rules.
“They made an example out of him for neglecting the Highest Dignity’s order to maximize public quarantine projects during the prolonged national emergency. It rang an alarm for the officials who are themselves becoming less thorough in implementing the quarantine,” said the source.
Another source, also from North Pyongan, confirmed the purge to RFA Tuesday, saying that Uiju’s administrative organizations are in chaos due to anxiety on the part of officials.
“After the head of the county party organization was purged, the chairman of the People’s Committee was also dismissed for failing to properly manage the quarantine facility,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
“Officials… believe the purge is the result of a power struggle between party leaders. They wonder why the chief secretary of the Uiju county party, who is in charge of the case, was not punished,” the second source said.
Authorities held a lecture session for the officials last week, saying that the party leader’s negligence of the emergency situation was a threat to the nation’s existence, according to the second source.
“They again delivered the Highest Dignity’s message that mistakes in economic projects can be corrected, but mistakes in implementing the quarantine should not be tolerated,” the second source said, adding that the increased scrutiny was causing officials to feel more anxious.
The second source also said that 10 North Pyongan officials, including military personnel, had been purged between March and May 2020 for violating quarantine guidelines, while in December nine officials and others involved with smuggling at the Chinese border in the country’s northern Ryanggang province were purged for the same reason.
RFA reported in December that a smuggler was publicly executed the previous month in the northwestern province of North Pyongan for violating emergency quarantine measures by trying to conduct business with his Chinese partners.
Sources in that report said ordinary residents in North Korea’s border region felt that the execution was meant to scare them into not complaining that the emergency quarantine measures affect their livelihood.