Kim Jong Un lauds China’s virus actions, wishes Xi ‘good health’

The health of North Korea’s leader is one of the most closely guarded secrets in the country, only known by a few people in the inner circle.
The health of North Korea’s leader is one of the most closely guarded secrets in the country, only known by a few people in the inner circle. (AP)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent his first formal message to China since reemerging from an almost three-week public absence, praising President Xi Jinping for his “success” in managing the coronavirus.

The official Korean Central News Agency said Friday that Kim sent a verbal message congratulating Xi, saying the Chinese leader was “seizing a chance of victory in the war against the unprecedented epidemic.” Kim also “wished Xi Jinping good health,” as he and the ruling Communist Party move forward to “win a final victory,” KCNA said.

China’s foreign ministry declined to provide details on the message. “China and North Korea are close neighbors and have maintained close communications over the fighting of the coronavirus,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing on Friday.

While North Korea has often sent such messages to its neighbor and main geopolitical benefactor, this one may receive more scrutiny because it follows Kim’s prolonged absence from events. That lull ended when official media showed a smiling Kim appearing at a May 1 ribbon-cutting event to open a new fertilizer factory, wearing a Mao suit and being greeted by the cheers of workers.

The health of North Korea’s leader is one of the most closely guarded secrets in the country, only known by a few people in the inner circle. While North Korea’s state media almost never speaks on the subject, a prolonged absence can lead to speculation in the outside world.

Reuters reported last month, citing people familiar with the matter, that China had sent a medical team to North Korea to advise on Kim. North Korea state media has made no allusions to Kim’s health, but the Seoul-based JoongAng Daily newspaper separately reported that the North Korean leader had been in self-quarantine after one of his bodyguards was confirmed with a coronavirus infection.

In a separate North Korean media report Friday, a spokesman for North Korea’s armed forces called a South Korean military drill set for this week “reckless” and a “provocation.” Pyongyang has often used such exercises as a pretense for its own military displays.

The comment came after Seoul accused North Korean troops Sunday of firing on South Korean personnel in the demilitarized zone that divides the two countries. South Korea said the action violated a 2018 military agreement between President Moon Jae-in and Kim to suspend hostile actions that could prompt conflict.

Beijing has for decades worried about leadership instability in nuclear-armed North Korea that could ignite a humanitarian crisis on its border, or even a collapse of the regime. That would open the door to the emergence of a unified Korea supported by the U.S.

No Cases?

The stability of impoverished North Korea concerns not only China and its other immediate neighbors, but the world. A power vacuum would raise questions about who controls its estimated stockpile of enough fissile material for as many as 60 nuclear bombs and hundreds of missiles capable of delivering an atomic payload.

Despite being between China -- the original epicenter of the virus outbreak -- and South Korea, which briefly was one of the hardest-hit countries, North Korea has said it hasn’t had any confirmed cases of Covid-19. Some including the commander of U.S. Forces Korea have expressed doubts about that claim.

China and South Korea have both seen dramatic falls in new infections over the past several weeks and are starting to re-open their economies after massive efforts to contain the virus. North Korea is one of the world’s poorest countries and its antiquated medical system could be overwhelmed by a severe Covid-19 outbreak.

North Korea’s KCNA on Friday said that preventive measures are being taken in all regions “against the widespread malignant virus infection that comes to be a world disaster,” adding the country is stockpiling materials for anti-epidemic efforts and working to develop a vaccine.

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