North Korea has condemned South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha for casting doubt over its claim that the country has had no coronavirus outbreaks, saying she will “pay dearly” for her comments and warning already strained ties across the Korean Peninsula could get worse, state media said on Wednesday.
Speaking at a forum over the weekend, Kang said the North had not responded to calls for cooperation on COVID-19, and that it was “hard to believe” the country had no cases of the disease.
North Korea has not officially confirmed any infections, although it has said there have been thousands of “suspected cases”.
“It can be seen from the reckless remarks made by her without any consideration of the consequences that she is too eager to further chill the frozen relations between the north and south of Korea,” Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency.
“We will never forget her words and she might have to pay dearly for it,” said Kim, who is a senior official in the ruling Workers’ Party and seen as the “de facto” second in command.
Relations between North and South have cooled since South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un held three summits in 2018. In June, the North blew up the inter-Korean liaison office following a series of warnings from Kim Yo Jong about propaganda leaflets and the killing of a South Korean fisheries official in September added to the strain.
KCNA said last week that North Korea had imposed “top-class emergency measures” and Pyongyang placed on the highest level of alert against the coronavirus. The operations of public facilities, including restaurants and public bathhouses, were suspended and the movement of people in the capital restricted.
Seoul’s National Intelligence Service has said an outbreak in the North cannot be ruled out as the isolated country had trade and people-to-people exchanges with China, where the virus emerged a year ago, before the border was sealed in late January.
The KCNA report came as US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, the Washington envoy on North Korea, held talks on what could be his last trip to the country, with US President Donald Trump due to leave office after losing last month’s election.
Denuclearisation talks have been stalled for months following a failed 2019 summit between Kim and Trump, which Moon had offered to mediate.
Talks between Biegun and officials from the South, taking place on Wednesday, were likely to focus on alliance cooperation and nuclear diplomacy, according to the Yonhap news agency. Biegun is due to meet the South’s Unification Minister on Thursday and Kang on Friday.
A new US administration under President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January. Pyongyang has not issued any formal response to the recent US election.