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Kim Jong Un blames ‘irresponsible’ officials for COVID outbreak

Employees spray disinfectant and wipe surfaces as part of preventative measures against the COVID-19 coronavirus at the Pyongyang Children's Department Store in Pyongyang on March 18, 2022. (Kim Won Jin/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held an emergency meeting over a COVID-19 outbreak sweeping the unvaccinated country and causing one of the biggest crises under his rule, reprimanding cadres for failing to execute his public health orders.

At the meeting, North Korea reported 392,920 new “fever cases” and eight new deaths nationwide in a 24-hour period ending 6 p.m. Sunday, the state’s official Korean Central News Agency reported. Since late April, 50 people have died and the total number of people reportedly infected topped 1.2 million, of which at least 564,860 are under medical treatment, it said in a Monday report.

Kim “strongly criticized the Cabinet and public health sector for their irresponsible work attitude and organizing and executing ability,” KCNA reported, with Kim saying they “have not rolled up their sleeves and not properly recognized the present crisis.” The harsh words came after the state last week for the first time admitted it had a Covid case within its borders, which prompted Kim to order a lockdown of major cities.

North Korea has not called the hundreds of thousands of fever cases “COVID,” perhaps because the reclusive country doesn’t have enough testing kits to confirm that the cases were caused by the coronavirus. It has also refused vaccines from the outside world, with reports saying planned shipments have been put on hold because North Korea was unwilling to follow rules by COVAX, a body backed by the World Health Organization.

This has left its 26 million people — many of whom are malnourished — vulnerable to even mild strains in a nation where the health care system is antiquated. A recent United Nations report said North Korea and Eritrea are the only two countries in the world that have not administered vaccines.

The state’s propaganda apparatus has shown Kim as diligently working to prevent an outbreak, likely to shift blame to lower-ranking officials while the disease spreads under his watch. Hours after letting the public know of COVID-19 within its borders, North Korea put on a display of its military might, firing three short-range ballistic missiles into waters off its east coast.

Health experts in the U.S., Japan and other places have long doubted North Korea’s claims that it had escaped a virus that has circled the globe. Kim’s regime was probably forced to admit an outbreak because it was too big to hide, experts said.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office on May 10 on pledges to take a tough line on Pyongyang for its security threats, offered to send COVID-19 vaccines and other medicines across the border, his government said Sunday. It will propose inter-Korean talks “as soon as possible” to discuss ways to aid North Korea’s fight against the virus.

The outbreak in North Korea comes as U.S. President Joe Biden is due to arrive in South Korea later this week for talks with allies on ways to bring Pyongyang back to nuclear disarmament talks that have been stalled for about three years.


© 2022 Bloomberg L.P
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