SEOUL — North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said that lapses in his country’s anti-pandemic campaign have caused a “great crisis” that posed “grave consequences,” state media reported on Wednesday.
Mr. Kim did not clarify whether the incident meant an outbreak of Covid-19 in North Korea, where the authorities until now claim to have found no cases of the virus. But state media reported that the incident was serious enough for Mr. Kim to convene a meeting of the Political Bureau of his ruling Workers’ Party on Tuesday, during which Mr. Kim reshuffled the top party leadership.
Senior officials neglected implementing anti-virus measures and had created “a great crisis in ensuring the security of the state and safety of the people,” Mr. Kim said.
Mr. Kim mentioned the unspecified incident as an example when he berated party officials for their “ignorance, disability and irresponsibility,” said the North’s official Korean Central News Agency. During the meeting, a detailed report was made on officials accused of neglecting their duties in fighting the pandemic and improving the economic lives of the people, it said.
It indicated that there would be some “legal” consequences for the officials.
The news agency said that some members of the Politburo and its Presidium, as well as some Workers’ Party secretaries, have been replaced. It did not provide further details. In North Korea, all power is concentrated in the monolithic leadership of Mr. Kim, and he has frequently reshuffled the party and military elites, holding them responsible for policy failures.
The North claims officially to be free of Covid-19, although outside experts remain skeptical, citing the country’s public health system and lack of extensive testing.
But North Korea, aware of its vulnerability to epidemics, has also enforced some of the harshest measures against the spread of the virus.
Last year, it created a buffer zone along the border with China, issuing a shoot-to-kill order to stop unauthorized crossings, according to South Korean and U.S. officials. South Korean lawmakers briefed by their government’s National Intelligence Service last year have said that North Korea executed an official for violating a trade ban imposed to fight the virus.
Last July, when a man from South Korea defected to the North, North Korea declared a national emergency for fear he might have brought the virus.
But Mr. Kim has also shown confidence that at least his inner circles were virus-free, sometimes presiding over meetings of party elites where no one wore masks.
During the meeting on Tuesday, Mr. Kim urged party officials to double down on his efforts to build a “self-reliant” economy. As North Korea’s economy has been hit hard by the pandemic, Mr. Kim has acknowledged that his five-year plan for growth had failed and instructed his officials to wage an “arduous march” through difficult economic times.This month, he warned of a looming food shortage.
The party meeting on Tuesday “suggests that the situation in the country has worsened beyond the capacity of self-reliance,” said Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
“Pyongyang may be setting up a domestic political narrative to allow the acceptance of foreign vaccines and pandemic assistance,” he said. “Kim is likely to blame scapegoats for this incident, purging disloyal government officials and replacing them with others considered more capable.”