North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has lifted a lockdown in a major city near the border with South Korea where thousands have been quarantined for weeks over coronavirus concerns, state media says.
- Mr Kim said the coronavirus situation was stable in Kaesong
- The country is also needing to repair damage caused by recent torrential rain
- Mr Kim has publicly rejected international aid for flood recovery
During a key ruling party meeting, Mr Kim also insisted the North would keep its borders shut, and rejected any outside help as the country continued to carry out an aggressive anti-virus campaign while also rebuilding thousands of houses, roads and bridges damaged by heavy rain and floods in recent weeks.
Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) also said Mr Kim replaced Kim Jae-ryong as premier following an evaluation of the Cabinet’s economic performance and appointed Kim Tok-hun as his successor.
Entering the last year of an ambitious five-year national development plan, Mr Kim declared a “frontal breakthrough” against international sanctions in December while urging his nation to stay resilient in a struggle for economic self-reliance.
But experts said the COVID-19 crisis likely thwarted some of Mr Kim’s major economic goals by forcing the country into a lockdown that shut the border with China — the North’s major ally and economic lifeline — and potentially hampered his ability to mobilise people for labour.
During Thursday’s meeting, Mr Kim said it was clear after three weeks of isolation measures and “scientific verification” that the virus situation in Kaesong was stable and expressed gratitude to residents for cooperating with the lockdown, KCNA reported.
Dual challenge of pandemic and rebuild
Mr Kim said his country now faced a dual challenge of fending off COVID-19 amid a worsening global pandemic and repairing damage from torrential rain that lashed the country in past weeks.
KCNA said 39,296 hectares of crops were ruined nationwide and 16,680 homes and 630 public buildings destroyed or flooded.
It said many roads, bridges and railway sections were damaged and a dam of an unspecified power station gave way.
There was no mention of any information related to injuries or deaths.
Mr Kim expressed sympathy with people who were at temporary facilities after losing their houses to floods and called for swift recovery efforts so that none were “homeless” by the time the country celebrated the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party’s founding on October 10.
Mr Kim’s public rejection of international aid for flood recovery and his decision to release Kaesong from quarantine were negative indicators for inter-Korean cooperation as South Korea had hoped to restart diplomatic engagement by providing support in these areas, Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said.
Cho Hey-sil, spokesperson of Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said South Korea remained willing to provide humanitarian assistance to their neighbours.
North Korea in past months has severed virtually all cooperation with South Korea amid a stalemate in larger nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, which faltered over disagreements in exchanging sanctions relief and disarmament steps.
North Korea in June blew up an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, following months of frustration over Seoul’s unwillingness to defy US-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons program and restart joint economic projects that would help the country’s broken economy.
“The North Korean economy, while touting self-reliance, is increasingly dependent on China and will struggle to balance sanctions-busting efforts and COVID-19 prevention,” Mr Easley said.
“The job of North Korea’s new premier will be to show the country has recovered from recent flooding and has upgraded public health facilities” by the October party anniversary, he said.
North Korea maintains it is coronavirus free
In late July, Mr Kim ordered a total lockdown of Kaesong and had the nation shift into a “maximum emergency system” after North Korea reported it found a person with COVID-19 symptoms.
North Korea’s state media said the suspected case was a North Korean who had earlier fled to the South before slipping back into Kaesong.
But South Korean health authorities said the 24-year-old had not tested positive in South Korea and never had contact with any known virus carrier.
North Korea later said the person’s test results were inconclusive and still maintained it was virus-free, a status widely doubted by outsiders.
Some experts said North Korea was likely trying to shift the blame over a possible spread of the virus to South Korea.
In an email to The Associated Press last week, Edwin Salvador, the World Health Organization’s representative to North Korea, said the North had told the UN agency it quarantined 64 first contacts of the suspected Kaesong case and 3,571 secondary contacts in state-run facilities for 40 days.
Since the end of December, North Korea has quarantined and released 25,905 people, 382 of them foreigners, Dr Salvador said.