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Explained: What we know about Covid-19 in North Korea

Kim Jong-un has blamed senior party officials for lapses that caused a "grave incident" related to Covid-19, state media in North Korea reported.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: July 1, 2021 7:57:02 am
Staff of the Pyongyang Primary School No. 4 clean classroom desks in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, June 30, 2021. (AP)

Communist-run North Korea, which throughout the pandemic has made the highly doubtful claim that it had no Covid cases, has now shown a rare sign of distress.

Kim Jong-un, its dictator, has blamed senior party officials for lapses that caused a “grave incident” related to Covid-19 that threatened public safety, state media reported.

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“In neglecting important decisions by the party that called for organisational, material and science and technological measures to support prolonged anti-epidemic work in face of a global health crisis, the officials in charge have caused a grave incident that created a huge crisis for the safety of the country and its people,” the state-run KCNA news agency quoted Kim as telling a meeting of the ruling party’s politburo.

While the news release did not clarify the nature of the transgressions, experts are interpreting the news as an admission that Covid has breached the isolated and impoverished country.

What do we know about Covid in North Korea?

North Korea borders China and South Korea, countries that witnessed early outbreaks of the virus. While its southern border is highly militarised, its border with China is relatively porous.

In 2020, its totalitarian regime was quick to act, banning all foreign tourists on January 23 and declaring a “state emergency” a week later. In early February, it did not confirm South Korean reports about infections, but went on to enforce stricter measures, such as closing schools on February 20. The same months saw international flights, as well as road and sea connections, suspended, and a mask mandate was implemented.

On March 18, Kim Jong-un ordered the construction of new hospitals, but said the development was related to improving the country’s healthcare system, and did not mention Covid-19. By the end of the month, the government said that 10,000 people had been quarantined.

The Hong Kong-based Asia Times and the US analyst website 38 North wrote around this time that the secretive country’s early and effective measures seemed to have stemmed the arrival of the pandemic. In April, the country held its national assembly, where hundreds of delegates attended without wearing masks.

In June, North Korea told the WHO that all educational institutions in the country were now open. In late July, Kim declared a state of emergency and imposed a lockdown in the city of Kaesong after a suspected Covid-19 case was reported.

As per South Korean intelligence, a North Korean official was executed in August for bringing goods into the country from China. The government also reportedly locked down Pyongyang and refused to accept rice shipments from China out of fear of letting in the virus. In October, state media said that the world was looking at North Korea with envy because of its Covid-free status.

In March this year, the country said it would skip this year’s Tokyo Olympics. In April, Kim admitted that North Korea was facing its “worst ever situation” in relation to the economic impact of the pandemic.

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