The state media in North Korea is cryptically reporting on what has been termed a “great crisis,” as the country’s leader Kim Jong Un has reportedly fired several senior officials who failed to enforce its COVID-19 prevention protocols. As CNN reported, it’s considered a “dereliction of duty” and that the crisis will have “grave consequences.”
The actual effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on North Korea are nebulous. In part, that’s due to the state’s control of information as well as what some experts are presuming to be a lack of coronavirus testing ability.
“An outbreak of COVID-19 could prove dire for North Korea,” the CNN report observed, adding, “The country’s dilapidated healthcare infrastructure is unlikely to be up to the task of treating a large number of patients with a highly infectious disease.”
The New York Times reported that the matter was serious enough for Kim to convene a meeting of the Political Bureau of his ruling Workers’ Party on June 29, during which he reshuffled the top party leadership—not an uncommon move for Kim.
The report noted that “senior officials neglected implementing antivirus measures and had created ‘a great crisis in ensuring the security of the state and safety of the people,’” according to Kim, who also chastised the allegedly responsible individuals for their “ignorance, disability, and irresponsibility” and promised legal consequences.
Though Kim has tried to paint a picture of a self-sufficient North Korea, he warned in June of a looming food shortage as the nation deals with both weather issues and the global economic ripples that the pandemic has caused.
CNN reported that prices have vastly increased in Pyongyang with imported staples—such as sugar, soybean oil, and flour—and residents have said that individual coffee packets are selling for as much as $100.
North Korea continues to maintain publicly that it is free of COVID-19 cases, though experts are skeptical of such claims. The country has taken extensive measures in guarding its borders.
“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 cited in the Times article. Additionally, South Korea contends, based on information from its National Intelligence Service, that North Korea executed an official in 2020 over insufficient enforcement of a trade ban intended to guard against COVID-19.
And in July 2020, when a symptomatic South Korean man made the unusual move of defecting to North Korea, the country declared a national emergency over concerns he might have had COVID-19.
The BBC added that state media “have continually exhorted citizens to be vigilant against the virus,” going as far as to warn citizens of “yellow dust” coming from China, despite a lack of evidence linking those seasonal dust clouds to COVID-19.
There is one advantage that North Korea could have in combatting the spread of the disease should cases emerge: its draconian policy of not allowing many North Koreans to travel far from their homes without government permission. That move would theoretically limit the ability of any specific variant to move from city to city.
But it remains unclear as to how North Korea would administer a vaccination campaign. The country is eligible for the Covax global vaccine program, and U.S. officials have indicated they’d send vaccines North Korea’s way.