North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has praised what he described as his country’s “shining success” in curbing the novel coronavirus pandemic, but warned his subordinates that lifting precautionary measures too early could be devastating.
Kim told a meeting of top politicians that they had stopped the novel coronavirus from making inroads into the largely closed off country, North Korean state media reported.
“We have thoroughly prevented the inroad of the malignant virus and maintained a stable anti-epidemic situation despite the worldwide health crisis, which is a shining success achieved,” state news agency KCNA said on Friday
However, Kim also chastised officials for getting complacent as the global health crisis has not yet abated.
“Hasty relief of anti-epidemic measures will result in unimaginable and irretrievable crisis,” Kim said, according to the report.
Images released by KCNA of the meeting showed Kim presiding over dozens of officials who did not appear to be practicing social distancing. None were shown wearing masks.
But diplomatic sources based in Pyongyang said on the streets, everyone wears masks and practices some form of social distancing. Life has mostly returned to normal in the North Korean capital, they said, and construction sites, shops and hotels are all now open. Schools there reopened in June, one source said.
The sources said that it seems North Korean officials are confident that they have the virus under control, at least in Pyongyang, though one of the sources said he has not heard about anyone being tested.
The meeting was Kim’s first public appearance in weeks. The young North Korean leader has in past years kept a very busy schedule packed with public events, but in the past three months he has maintained a surprisingly low profile.
NK News, which tracks the public appearances of the country’s top officials, said Kim only appeared 7 times publicly in April, May and June of this year. During the same time period in 2018 and 2019, he appeared in public 45 and 46 times, respectively.
Kim’s absence fueled rampant speculation about both his health — he is particularly unhealthy for a man in his mid-30s — and whether a cluster of cases had emerged in North Korea. Some analysts thought it was possible that he was being sheltered from the general public in case the virus had begun spreading through North Korea.
More than 10.8 million people across the planet have contracted the novel coronavirus, and more than half a million have died as a result of the virus. Every country in East Asia has reported at least one case of Covid-19 — except North Korea.
In a statement emailed to CNN, the World Health Organization’s representative in North Korea, Dr. Edwin Salvador, said that that 922 people in the country have been tested for the virus, all of whom tested negative. North Korea’s population is likely around 25 million, though an exact number is unclear because Pyongyang does not make demographic information available to the public.
Salvador said that since the pandemic began 25,551 people have been put in quarantine and later released. As many as 255 people — all North Korean nationals — are still being kept in quarantine, he said. Salvador said that schools across the country have reopened, and students are required to wear masks
Independent public health experts have said it’s highly unlikely the virus did not make it inside the country in some form. One of the most likely scenarios is the virus may have entered through the northern border with China, where smuggling is common. Coronavirus clusters have been identified in northeastern China, including one in Jilin province in May.
Salvador said that though borders are closed, goods being sent into North Korea are disinfected and then quarantined for 10 days.
Experts believe North Korea would be particularly vulnerable to a Covid-19 outbreak because of its poor healthcare infrastructure, and questions had previously been raised about Pyongyang’s testing capacity. Salvador said that North Korea has 235 rapid response teams across the country prepared to deal with cases and 15 labs that have been designated for Covid-19 testing. Authorities in North Korea have begun using infrared thermometers to conduct temperature checks in public places, where masks are mandatory. Public gatherings have been banned.
“The ministry’s national protocol is based on WHO guidelines to respond to any COVID-19 suspected cases. All suspected cases (mild, moderate or severe) are quarantined in the designated county or provincial hospitals for management and there is no home quarantine for suspected mild cases,” he said in his statement.
While many worried that North Korea’s healthcare system would be overwhelmed by a potential pandemic, the country is also somewhat well placed to prevent the virus from penetrating its borders. North Korea stopped allowing people to enter when the pandemic first emerged months ago, and people inside the country do not enjoy the freedom to move about as they please. Defectors say average North Koreans are not permitted to travel far from home without government approval.