North Korean leader Kim Jong Un acknowledged that his country lacks modern medical facilities and called for urgent improvements, state media said Wednesday, in a rare assessment of the North's health care system that comes amid worries about the coronavirus in the impoverished country.
Outside experts say a coronavirus epidemic in the North could be devastating due its chronic lack of medical supplies and outdated health care infrastructure. Kim's comments were made during a ceremony Tuesday marking the start of construction on a new hospital.
North Korea has engaged in an intense campaign to guard against the new virus, though it has steadfastly maintained that no one has been sickened, a claim many foreign experts doubt.
During a groundbreaking ceremony for a "modern general hospital" in Pyongyang, the capital, Kim said it's "crucial" for the state's efforts to be directed "to prop up the field of public health," according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA.
It cited Kim as saying the construction must be completed before October's 75th founding anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party.
Kim said the ruling party decided on building the hospital during a key party meeting in late December and was working to have it finished "in the shortest time." In an unusual admission on a troubled state system, Kim also said, "Frankly speaking, our party ... criticized in a heart-aching manner the fact that there is not a modern medical and health care facility even in our capital city," according to KCNA.
Kim appears to be using the hospital construction to burnish his image as a leader caring about public livelihoods at a time when his country is grappling with international sanctions amid stalled nuclear diplomacy with the United States, said Ahn Kyung-su, head of the Seoul-based private Research Center of DPRK Health and Welfare.
He said North Korea has several modern general hospitals in Pyongyang but an analysis of construction drawings for the new hospital shown in KCNA photos suggested it would be the most sophisticated hospital in North Korea when it's built.
In a report to the World Health Organization, North Korea said it had 135 general and other major hospitals throughout the country as of 2017, according to South Korea's Unification Ministry.
Some observers said North Korea may have hurried the hospital's construction since China reported the first cases of the new disease in December.
While the new coronavirus can be deadly, particularly for the elderly and people with other health problems, for most people it causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. Some feel no symptoms at all and the vast majority of people recover.
Kim's attendance at the hospital ceremony also confirmed that he returned to Pyongyang after supervising artillery firing exercises on North Korea's east coast. His visits to the rural coastal areas had prompted outside speculation that he may have been trying to avoid the virus.
"North Korea clearly stated the date for the groundbreaking ceremony was March 17, and that clearly showed Chairman Kim Jong Un is back to Pyongyang and is governing state affairs normally," said Kim Dong-yub, an analyst at Seoul's Institute for Far Eastern Studies.
North Korea banned foreign tourists, delayed the school year and quarantined hundreds of foreigners and thousands of locals to avoid the virus that has spread worldwide. Last week, KCNA described authorities inspecting and disinfecting vehicles, vessels and goods at border areas and ports and said some imports remained sealed for 10 days before being handed over to recipients.
Groups that monitor North Korea from South Korea, say the country has had cases of infection with the new coronavirus as well as fatalities. Some experts say the Kim government considers public disclosure of those cases harmful to its tight grip on power.
The chief of the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea said last week that he was fairly certain North Korea has not been spared from the virus. Army Gen. Robert Abrams noted that the North had halted military training for a month, essentially putting its troops in a lockdown, but has since resumed training exercises and flying.
Earlier this month, Kim Jong Un sent a letter to South Korea's president to express condolences over the soaring coronavirus outbreak in the South. Kim's letter was delivered a day after his powerful younger sister insulted and criticized Seoul. Some experts speculated that the development suggested that Kim was aiming to throw South Korea off balance before asking for coronavirus-related aid items such as test kits.
About 290 foreigners who were quarantined in North Korea have been released, including some diplomats who were flown to Vladivostok, Russia, on a special North Korean flight. It wasn't immediately known whether North Korea plans another flight.