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Kim Jong Un Says A Lapse In COVID Protocols Caused A 'Grave Incident'

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has publicly railed at senior officials, saying their failure to implement policies required to fight the pandemic properly had caused a "grave incident."

But he didn't say exactly what the incident was, nor did he contradict the country's official line, which is that it has not had a single COVID-19 infection so far. Given the rudimentary state of North Korea's health care system, and its history of fighting pandemics, experts doubt that claim.

Kim decried official "incompetence and irresponsibility," which he said had led to unspecified "severe consequences," at a meeting of Workers' Party Politburo. That group includes about 20 top ruling party officials, plus another 11 alternate members.

As recently as last week, North Korea reported to the World Health Organization that it has not had a single case of COVID-19, although it admits it has tested only around 30,000 people in a country of more than 25 million.

State media said senior officials failed to take various "measures as required by the prolonged state emergency epidemic prevention campaign." Some observers took this to mean that the policies that were not implemented to Kim's satisfaction may have been required by, but not directly related to, efforts to combat the pandemic.

The meeting at which Kim spoke also saw a personnel reshuffle within top party and government institutions. This move prompted speculation that some senior officials were punished for the "grave incident," although state media did not mention specific officials by name.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, noted that the last time North Korea admitted to a suspected outbreak of COVID-19 was last July, when a person who defected to South Korea reentered the North and slipped into the city of Kaesong. The whole city was quarantined for nearly three weeks, but no infections were ever confirmed.

"If this 'great crisis' were a COVID infection or a suspected infection," Yang said, "North Korea would have completely locked down the concerned region, but we are not seeing any such signs," which leads him to think the infection scenario is unlikely.

Yang also noted that Kim has publicly admitted that his country faces another crisis: a food shortage. While food shortages are a chronic condition in the North, due in part to economic mismanagement, the situation has been aggravated by pandemic-related border closures and poor harvests as a result of typhoons last year.

"Kim Jong Un could have, for example, ordered the military to release their rice stockpile to tackle the current emergency," Yang said. "A delay in executing such order could lead to growing complaints from the people, which would seem to be a serious problem in the eyes of the supreme leader."

The border closures and the departure of much of the foreign diplomatic corps from Pyongyang has left the North even more isolated than it usually is.

"Without many eyes and ears on the ground, it is increasingly difficult to assess the situation," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. "And without their trusted hands, it will be harder to deliver assistance to the people who need it most."

NPR's Se Eun Gong in Seoul contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.