SEOUL, South Korea >> North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has visited typhoon-stricken areas in the northeast, fired a top official there and promised to send 12,000 workers from Pyongyang for recovery efforts, state media reported Sunday.
It’s the latest in a series of high-profile visits by Kim and his deputies to areas hit by natural disasters in recent weeks. Some experts say Kim likely attempted to project an image of a leader looking after people’s livelihoods as he seeks to bolster internal unity in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and U.S.-led sanctions.
The Korean Central News Agency said that Kim on Saturday visited South Hamgyong province, which was hit by Typhoon Maysak last week. It said Kim was briefed that the typhoon destroyed more than 1,000 houses and inundated public buildings and farmland in the coastal areas of South Hamgyong as well as nearby North Hamgyong province.
KCNA didn’t report any deaths or injuries in the two provinces. But the country’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said Saturday that “dozens of casualties” were reported in Kangwon province, south of the Hamgyong provinces, and that officials in Kangwon would be “gravely punished” for failing to evacuate residents to safety.
Kim also convened a high-level policy meeting there, where he “underscored the need to make the recovery campaign from damage an important political work and an occasion of consolidating the single-mined unity,” KCNA said.
Kim said authorities must issue “a general mobilization order” to ensure the swift supply of materials for rehabilitation works and urged members of the ruling Workers’ Party in Pyongyang, the capital, to take the lead.
In a separate open letter to party members in Pyongyang, Kim said the 12,000-strong divisions of the party “elite” will be sent to aid recovery in South and North Hamgyong provinces.
KCNA said Kim also dismissed Kim Song Il, chairman of the South Hamgyong Provincial Committee of the Workers’ Party.
Kim needs greater public support to deal with worsening economic pain caused by U.S.-led sanctions imposed over his nuclear program, and the coronavirus pandemic that had forced him to seal off his country’s border with China, its biggest trading partner and economic pipeline.
North Korea has insisted it hasn’t found any virus case, a claim widely disputed by foreign analysts. Despite the pandemic, observers say Kim will likely hold a military parade and other national events next month to celebrate the 75th founding anniversary of the Workers’ Party in an effort to boost his family’s rule.
Late last month, Kim visited a western coastal area hit by another typhoon and expressed relief that the damage wasn’t significant. Earlier in August, he visited other places where days of torrential rains flooded hundreds of houses and vast areas of agricultural land.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said after Kim’s early August trip that it was rare for him to visit a flood-stricken site, saying the last time he did so was in September 2015.
“Kim Jong-un’s more frequent visits to the provinces are intended to show a ‘leader of the people’ response to natural disasters,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “But this is also blunt recognition that the elite in Pyongyang are not self-reliant. Kim’s increased attention to farmers reflects a worrying food supply situation in the country. “
Recently, Kim has displayed unusual candor in addressing flawed systems and policies.
Kim said during Saturday’s meeting that the overall anti-disaster condition in coastal areas is “poor” and that sea dikes were “not properly built.” Earlier this year, he said his country lacks modern medical facilities, and also acknowledged his economic development plans hadn’t been successful.
KCNA said Sunday that North Korea is bracing for another typhoon and that authorities were taking steps to prevent possible casualties and damage. South Korea’s weather agency said Typhoon Haishen was expected to skirt the Korean Peninsula’s east coast on Monday with heavy rains and strong winds.