North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his first public appearance in about a month to chastise some top cadres over their management of the coronavirus, amid speculation he may be isolating himself due to the pandemic.
During a Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party meeting, Kim warned officials they may be growing complacent after a six month campaign to keep the disease out of the country, the official Korean Central News Agency reported Friday.
“The Supreme Leader made sharp criticism of inattention, onlooking and chronic attitude getting prevalent among officials,” KCNA said. “He repeatedly warned that hasty relief of anti-epidemic measures will result in unimaginable and irretrievable crisis.”
Photos of the Thursday meeting that showed Kim in front of party flags and speaking to a room full of officials were also released in state media. This was the first Kim appearance to include photo evidence since June 8, according to NK News, a news service specializing on North Korea. It added that Kim has made seven appearances in April through June of this year, down from his average of 46 for those months since taking power at the end of 2011.
Kim didn’t mention recent tensions with South Korea after his regime last month unleashed one of its greatest provocations in years against its neighbor by blowing up a $15 million joint liaison office north of the border. Seoul paid for its construction and was seen as a milestone in reconciliation by South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Kim’s absence from public life has raised speculation about the physical condition of the 36-year-old and his control of the state’s nuclear weapons. The health of North Korea’s “Supreme Leader” is one of its most closely guarded secrets known to only a small inner circle but that has not stopped outside conjecture that he may have suffered a serious illness or could be keeping his distance to avoid Covid-19.
Pyongyang has yet to confirm a single case Covid-19 but the commander of U.S. Forces Korea has said the virus has likely made its way to the isolated country. Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono last month told a news briefing that he believes the disease may be spreading there and Kim is keeping to himself to avoid infection.
At the party meeting, Kim described the country as having a “shining success” in holding off the coronavirus, preventing it from making inroads in the country. North Korea is one of the world’s poorest countries and its antiquated medical system could be overwhelmed by a severe Covid-19 outbreak.
Kim’s regime has lashed out at South Korea for not breaking away from a U.S.-led sanctions campaign choking North Korea’s paltry economy and told the Trump administration it no longer sees any benefit in engaging with Washington after it refused to ease up on the economic punishments.
More than two years after an unprecedented flurry of summits with Moon, U.S. President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping, Kim still hasn’t achieved the sanctions relief and security guarantees he wanted in exchange for offering to scale back his nuclear weapons program.