'Frail' Kim Jong-un blasts officials over 'crucial' Covid blunders amid fears of mass outbreak
KIM Jong-un has blasted his top officials over "crucial" Covid blunders and warned of a "grave incident" amid fears of a mass outbreak.
The 37-year-old dictator slammed his cadres over the handling of North Korea's efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus, according to state media.
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Speaking at a meeting of the ruling Workers' party on Tuesday, Kim accused officials of "causing a grave incident that poses a huge crisis to the safety of the nation and its people", state news agency Korean Central News Agency said.
Kim called the meeting to deal with "chronic irresponsibility and incompetence" in the top ranks and blasted bureaucrats for "passiveness in planning and executing anti-virus measures amid the lengthening pandemic".
The report did not elaborate on the nature of the "crisis" – or how the incident put North Koreans at risk.
Several politburo members, secretaries of the central committee, and officials of state agencies were booted out and replaced at the meeting, KCNA reports.
But it wasn't confirmed if the shake-ups were related to the handling of the pandemic.
So far, North Korea has claimed to have zero Covid cases, despite testing thousands and sharing a border with China.
Hong Min, a senior analyst at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification, told Associated Press: "There is no possibility that North Korea will ever admit to an infection even if there were mass transmissions.
"The North will definitely not reveal such developments and will continue to push forward an anti-virus campaign it has claimed to be the greatest."
Min added: "But its also clear that something significant happened and it was big enough to warrant a reprimanding of senior officials.
"This could mean mass infections or some sort of situation where a lot of people were put at direct risk of infections."
North Korea has told the World Health Organisation it has not found a single case of Covid after testing more than 31,000 people – including many with fevers or respiratory symptoms.
Despite confirming no cases, the reclusive country has brought in strict lockdown measures, including border closures and domestic travel curbs, pointing to concerns over the spread of the virus.
And the country declared a state of emergency and locked down the border city of Kaesong last year after a person who defected to South Korea three years ago returned across the border with symptoms of Covid.
The lockdown has strained an economy already battered by decades of mismanagement and crippling US-led sanctions over the country's nuclear weapons program.
'SIGNS OF UNEASE'
Soo Kim, a former CIA North Korea analyst, said the international community had been waiting for Pyongyang to "crack and show greater signs of unease".
"That Kim chose to blame his cadres – rather than taking responsibility and pursuing concrete steps to correct the situation – may give some indication that Kim takes the virus seriously, but perhaps not to the extent that it will move him to make the right decision,” she told the Financial Times.
But Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said Kim's statement "could pave the way to the self-isolated country finally accepting international pandemic assistance".
During a meeting earlier this month, Kim warned officials to brace for more Covid restrictions, suggesting the country isn't ready to open its borders anytime soon.
The leader's crisis talks on Tuesday come after images of a new "slim Kim" emerged in recent weeks as it was revealed he ballooned to more than 22 stone amid dire food shortages across his country.
And starving North Koreans are increasingly worried about the health of their "emaciated" leader, according to state media.
State TV ran a highly-unusual story about his new trimmed-down look – even though any discussion of his health and personal life has always been off-limits.
It features an unnamed North Korean citizen close to tears saying their "Glorious Leader" now looks "emaciated" and people are getting very concerned.
However, analysts say the broadcast just shows the Pyongyang propaganda machine is trying to use Kim's weight to reinforce loyalty to the regime in desperate times.
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