North Korean leader Kim Jong Un lifted a lockdown in a major city near the border with South Korea where thousands have been quarantined for weeks over coronavirus worries.
Kim, during a key governing party meeting on Thursday, insisted North Korea will keep its borders shut and rejected any outside help as the country carries out an aggressive anti-coronavirus campaign and rebuilds thousands of houses, roads and bridges damaged by heavy rain and floods in recent weeks.
Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency also said Kim replaced Kim Jae Ryong as prime minister, following an evaluation of the cabinet’s economic performance and appointed Kim Tok Hun as his successor.
During Thursday’s meeting, 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.
Kim said his country now faces 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 (97,100 acres) of crops were ruined nationwide and 16,680 homes and 630 public buildings destroyed or flooded.
It added 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.
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 is “homeless” by the time the country celebrates the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party’s founding on October 10.
“The situation, in which the spread of the worldwide malignant virus has become worse, requires us not to allow any outside aid for the flood damage but shut the border tighter and carry out strict anti-epidemic work,” KCNA paraphrased Kim as saying.
Cho Hey-sil, spokesperson of Seoul’s unification ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said the South remains willing to provide humanitarian assistance to the North.
South Korea ties severed
North Korea in past months has severed virtually all cooperation with the South amid a deadlock in larger nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, which faltered over disagreements in exchanging sanctions relief and disarmament steps.
The North 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 programme and restart joint economic projects that would help the North’s broken economy.
In late July, Kim ordered a total lockdown of Kaesong and had the nation shift into a “maximum emergency system” after the North reported it found a person with COVID-19 symptoms.
The North’s state media said the suspected case was a North Korean who had earlier fled to the South before slipping back into Kaesong. However, South Korean health authorities say 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 maintains it is coronavirus-free, a status widely doubted by outsiders.
In an email to The Associated Press news agnecy last week, Dr Edwin Salvador, the World Health Organization’s representative to North Korea, said since the end of December, the country has quarantined and released 25,905 people, 382 of them foreigners.