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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said an unspecified “crucial” incident in the country’s fight against the deadly coronavirus had triggered a “great crisis” that endangered the isolated nation, state media reported Wednesday.

Kim, who was presiding over a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea politburo a day earlier, scolded senior officials for failing to carry out strict anti-virus measures, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.

Officials had been derelict in their duties, triggering the incident and “creating a great crisis in ensuring the security of the state and safety of the people,” which “entailed grave consequences,” KCNA quoted Kim as saying.

The North Korean leader, the report went on, said in “strong terms” that “a major factor … hindering the implementation of the important tasks” decided at a rare ruling party congress in January has been “the lack of ability and irresponsibility of cadres.”

Senior party officials faced “sharp criticism” at Tuesday’s meeting, KCNA said, adding that the top leadership has been reshuffled, without revealing which officials were removed.

The isolated North has maintained it has not recorded a single case of COVID-19 in the country, though outside experts have been skeptical of this claim.

Japan’s top government spokesman said Wednesday that Tokyo was watching the latest news “with great interest” and was working closely with the United States and South Korea to collect information on the coronavirus situation in North Korea.

Observers say Kim likely views the coronavirus as an existential threat to the stability of the sanctions-hit regime, with the North being one of the first countries in the world to seal its borders amid the pandemic.

Leif-Eric Easley, a North Korea expert and professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said Kim’s denunciation of senior officials and leadership reshuffle could also be seen as him attempting to maintain an upper hand against any threats from within.

“This is Kim Jong Un trying to stay on offense, not only against the virus, but also against any internal actors who would challenge his authority,” he said.

North Korea has maintained it has not recorded a single case of COVID-19 in the country, though outside experts have been skeptical of this claim. | KCNA / VIA KNS / VIA AFP-JIJI
North Korea has maintained it has not recorded a single case of COVID-19 in the country, though outside experts have been skeptical of this claim. | KCNA / VIA KNS / VIA AFP-JIJI

Earlier this month, the North Korean leader used a meeting with senior officials to discuss the need to maintain a “perfect anti-epidemic state,” an indication that his country’s tough lockdown measures are unlikely to end anytime soon.

Kim said the harsh measures were necessary since “the world health crisis is becoming worse and worse due to the malignant virus,” a likely reference to the spread of more virulent COVID-19 variants.

The shuttering of the border has cut off key imports and aid — particularly from China, its sole patron — exacerbating an already difficult situation in the North.

In a rare admission this month, Kim himself formally acknowledged that the county is facing dire food shortages, rekindling images of a mass famine in the 1990s.

The North was scheduled to receive 1.7 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine by the end of May through the World Health Organization-backed COVAX initiative, but shipments were halted after Pyongyang was unwilling to follow COVAX rules, including monitoring by the program, Kyodo News reported last month.

In a possible bid to offset this, the country is reportedly scrambling to secure large amounts of COVID-19 vaccines for its military via its officials living abroad, according to Daily NK, a Seoul-based online publication that monitors the North.

This has lent credence to the widespread belief among observers that the coronavirus situation there is far worse than the country has let on, and that — at least for now — attempts to kick-start denuclearization talks with the U.S. are likely to be met with indifference as the regime pours all of its energy into fighting the deadly virus.

Still, the pandemic could also represent an opening of sorts for engagement with the regime — or at the very least a tacit acceptance that outside help is needed.

“Such high-profile comments from the North Korean leader may also signal the domestic situation has become dire enough that the self-isolated country will reduce barriers to international aid and vaccines,” Ewha University’s Easley said.

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