North Korea, after claiming for months that it had kept the coronavirus away, came close to admitting Wednesday that its anti-virus campaign was not perfect.

Kim Jong Un spoke out about a “great crises” caused by a failure to implement national pandemic control measures at a ruling party meeting. This has led to speculation from outsiders about how dire the situation in North Korea.

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Analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies Du Hyeogn Cha said that the North may be facing a massive COVID-19 epidemic. This has reached beyond rural and border areas, and could now reach urban centers including capital Pyongyang.

Experts doubt this claim, even though North Korea claims it hasn’t found any coronavirus infections after testing over 30,000 people. However, the World Health Organization has been assured that they have not detected any. Cha stated that North Korea cannot deal with an outbreak other than to quarantine people and lock down entire areas until the transmissions cease.

Park Won Gon is a professor of North Korea Studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University. She said that the large Politburo meeting, which included party officials from all over the country, would have been planned ahead and might not have taken place if there was an aggressive outbreak of the virus.

Ahn Kyungsu, head of the Seoul-based Research Center for DPRK Health and Welfare, stated that in the event of large-scale outbreaks, the North will take extreme measures to protect affected areas. This is something that outside monitoring groups haven’t seen.


Is it about power shakeup?

Analysts agree that Kim’s comments indicate a significant development worthy of a shakeup in Pyongyang leadership.

Kim was criticized by North’s state media for criticizing senior officials of the party and the government for not taking “important decisions” regarding the party’s ability to take organizational, technological, material, scientific, and institutional measures required by the state-wide epidemic prevention campaign.

According to the report, the Politburo’s powerful Presidium (which includes Kim and four other top officers) was also recalled by the party at the meeting. Kim Tok Hun could be the Cabinet Premier, which could mean he could be replacing him as his top economic official. This could lead to anti-epidemic failures.

Rumours circulated that Kim might have fired Ri Pyong Chol (one of his most senior military officers). North Korean television video showed Ri looking down and not participating in the vote. Kim and other high ranking officials raised their hands to express their agreement on a matter that was not specified by the broadcast.

It’s unlikely that North Korea would admit to a worrying rise in infection rates, even if they were. Kim’s public acknowledgment of a major setback in fighting the pandemic could be seen as an appeal to outside assistance.

As they near the 60th anniversary their friendship treaty, Cha suggested that the North could seek more assistance from China, its principal ally and economic support.

Leif-Eric Easley is a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University. She said that Kim’s attempts to find the culprits could be done in preparation for receiving vaccines from overseas.

COVAX, a U.N.-backed program that distributes vaccines around the world, stated in February that North could receive 1.9million doses during the first half year. Due to global shortages, the plans were delayed.

Kim Sin-gon, a Korean University College of Medicine professor, stated that Kim Jong Un probably aimed to increase international awareness of North Korea’s pandemic-related problems.