Communist government media in North Korea revealed on Thursday that the country had experienced a “break” in Chinese coronavirus prevention, confirming the first-ever official cases of the disease within its borders.
Dictator Kim Jong-un reportedly presided over a meeting of the ruling Politburo to berate public health officials for their “carelessness, relaxation, irresponsibility and inefficiency” and implement sweeping lockdowns on the population.
North Korea had not admitted to a single case of Chinese coronavirus in the country before Thursday. One alleged case in August 2020 resulted in an “inconclusive” coronavirus test, according to the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) at the time. Outside observers have asserted that North Korea – sandwiched between the origin country of the virus, China, and South Korea and Russia, which have both experienced major surges in coronavirus cases – documenting zero Chinese coronavirus cases is a near impossibility.
Skeptics have also pointed to the fact that North Korea requested shipments of coronavirus vaccine candidates from the W.H.O.’s Covax initiative, which would presumably be unnecessary in a country with zero cases.
Kim Jong-un delivered a tearful speech in October 2020, apologizing to his people for his poor governance, that prompted speculation of a significant loss of life and health as a result of the pandemic, though Kim did not mention coronavirus as a factor in his remarks at the time.
“A most serious emergency case of the state occurred: A break was made on our emergency epidemic prevention front where has firmly defended for two years and three months from February, 2020,” the government newspaper Rodong Sinmun revealed on Thursday. “The state emergency epidemic prevention command and relevant units made deliberation of the result of strict gene arrangement analysis on the specimen from persons with fever of an organization in the capital city on May 8, and concluded that it coincided with Omicron BA.2 variant which is recently spreading worldwide rapidly.”
The newspaper reported that the ruling communist Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) had implemented “urgent measures” immediately, beginning with punishing its own officials. It did not say how many coronavirus cases the government had confirmed.
“All measures were taken for the Party, administrative and economic organs at all levels, sectors of public and state security and national defence and all organs and sectors of the country to establish the proper work system,” the state propaganda outlet narrated, “to make the state work be done smoothly in line with the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system coming into force.”
Kim Jong-un specifically imposed lockdowns in “the whole country,” according to Rodong Sinmun, but also ordered his underlings to “minimize inconveniences” for North Koreans, without elaborating. Kim also used his remarks to condemn “unscientific fear, lack of faith and weak will,” presumably a threat to North Koreans who may publicly express any criticism of his regime. The North Korean state mandates that all citizens worship the Kim family – most prominently Kim’s grandfather, founder of the communist state Kim Il-sung – and has trapped hundreds of thousands of people in labor camps for either not complying or being related to someone found guilty of disloyalty.
“The people-first politics by our Party and state that have displayed the great vitality, overcoming all troubles of history,” Rodong Sinmun proclaimed, citing Kim Jong-un, “and the strength of our people who are united single-mindedly are the most powerful guarantee to win victory in the current great epidemic prevention campaign.”
Other than the vague command to implement lockdowns in “the whole country,” North Korea’s government media arms did not specify exactly how the government would impose such a mandate or how that would affect the few industries the country uses to keep afloat in the face of communist economic mismanagement and crippling international sanctions. In the countryside, state media emphasized the need to prevent an ongoing drought from destroying critical crops.
“Agitprop is brisk in the DPRK [North Korea] to encourage agricultural officials and workers to combat drought,” Rodong Sinmun proclaimed on Thursday. “All provincial Party committees make sure that various forms and ways of agitprop offensives are conducted to inform the masses of the importance of the work to protect crops from drought damage.”
South Korean government officials and North Korea experts believed that 2020 – during which Kim Jong-un insisted not a single case of Chinese coronavirus occurred in his country – was a particularly difficult year for North Korea’s food supply due to widespread floods. Kim appeared to use the context of the floods to issue his bizarre apology to his people in October of that year.
“Our people have placed trust, as high as sky and as deep as sea, on me, but I have failed to always live up to it satisfactorily. I am really sorry for that,” a crying Kim Jong-un declared at the time. “Although I am entrusted with the important responsibility to lead this country upholding the cause of the great Comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il thanks to the trust of all the people, my efforts and sincerity have not been sufficient enough to rid our people of the difficulties in their life.”
Kim did not identify any of the “difficulties” that had prompted his remarks. His government continued to insist for over a year thereafter that it had not documented any domestic coronavirus cases. South Korean media claimed that North Korea had, in reality, confirmed over 500 coronavirus cases by July 2020.
In 2020, Kim also announced the urgent construction of the “Pyongyang General Hospital,” insisting that North Korea did not need a new hospital because of the pandemic, but the project was never completed as North Korea ran out of supplies. As of March 2022, the WPK issued an edict demanding that the hospital open before 2023.
In February 2021, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency revealed that North Korea had requested Chinese coronavirus vaccines from the W.H.O. and that the United Nations agency had reserved 2 million doses for the country.