Kim Jong-un has criticized top officials over lapses that caused a “grave incident” related to Covid-19, North Korean state media reports.
It was an erratic sign of the pandemic’s severity in North Korea, which previously asserted that it had no Covid cases – a claim suspected by experts.
The country has shut its borders to keep out the virus.
But coupled with international sanctions, it has resulted in food shortages and a worsening economy.
Mr Kim earlier admitted a “tense” food situation and told citizens to be ready for the “worst-ever” outcome, raising comparisons to the country’s deadly 1990s famine.
Earlier this week, state television aired an unusual remark by a citizen commenting on Mr Kim’s “withered” look after he seemed to have lost some weight.
In remarks reported by state news outlet KCNA, Mr Kim alleged senior officials of negligence at a mainly convened meeting of party leaders.
This, as a result, “caused a grave incident that has caused a great risk to people and the nation’s safety”, as per his comments in Korean.
The report then added that various party members had been evoked, including one member from the powerful Standing Committee – which comprises of five members, including Mr Kim himself.
But, the report did not give any further details on the incident or recognize the officials.
Kim Jong-un’s comment may imply a potential breach of the coronavirus quarantine system or that a new smuggling trade route at the North Korean-China border has been exposed.
The fact that the extended Politburo meeting was held 11 days after the plenary session indicates that the Covid situation is a big challenge. The failure to reveal which of the five Politburo members were fired could reduce the political divisions.
Nevertheless, Kim’s comment indicates that North Korea sees the coronavirus situation as a critical matter that affects the nation’s survival.
The alarming situation in North Korea
North Korea has put in place stringent restrictions. State media have repeatedly urged citizens to be vigilant against the virus, even cautioning them late last year to be wary of “yellow dust” from China. There is no recognized link between the seasonal dust clouds and Covid-19.
Trade with China, North Korea’s main ally, has plunged since the country shut its borders, including some food and medicine that have not been able to get through.
Aid organizations have raised the alarm of severe food and economic crisis.
Reports in the recent months of soaring food prices and deaths by starvation and large numbers of people begging for food have emerged.
The latest state media report was a sign of “deteriorating” health conditions inside North Korea. Dr Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul.
“Mr Kim will likely find scapegoats for the incident, purging disloyal officials and blaming their ideological lapses,” he mentioned adding, “This may provide Pyongyang justification for demanding that citizens hunker down more, but it could also be political preparation for accepting vaccines from abroad.”