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North Korea Warns of 'Grave' Coronavirus Incident

FILE - A public security officer uses a red flag to stop a taxi for disinfection as part of preventative measures against the COVID-19 coronavirus, on a road at the entrance to Wonsan, Kangwon Province, North Korea, Oct. 29, 2020.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un says a "grave incident" has threatened his country's coronavirus prevention efforts — a rare admission by Pyongyang, which claims to be free of COVID-19.

During a Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers' Party, Kim chastised senior officials for unspecified carelessness related to the coronavirus pandemic, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said Wednesday.

The officials "have caused a grave incident that poses a huge crisis to the safety of the nation and its people," KCNA said.

The report provided no details about the "grave incident" or how it posed a threat.

North Korea continues to insist it has found zero cases of COVID-19, a nearly impossible claim that is widely disputed by global health experts.

It is not clear whether Wednesday's admission of failure reflects any wider change in North Korea's approach to the virus or if it was a pretext for other domestic plans.

The KCNA report said that several senior officials were replaced during the Politburo meeting, though it did not say if the moves were related to the coronavirus incident.

"The regime may … be using the incident as a way to engage in a small purge, getting rid of unwanted elements and underscoring Kim's rule by fear," said Mason Richey, a professor at South Korea's Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. "The public statement also provides a built-in excuse for future economic downturns."

Since January 2020, North Korea has closed its borders, restricted domestic travel and even cut off nearly all trade with its economic lifeline, China.

Kim has repeatedly warned of a "prolonged" lockdown amid what he says is a worsening global pandemic. State media have warned vaccines produced overseas are no "panacea."

COVAX, the global vaccine-sharing program, had expected to send nearly 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to North Korea by the first half of this year. But that has been delayed in part because of ongoing negotiations between COVAX and Pyongyang.

An outbreak in North Korea could be extremely dangerous because many parts of the country are impoverished and lack an adequate health care system.

In a report last week, the World Health Organization said North Korea claimed it had conducted over 31,000 COVID-19 tests, all of which came back negative.

Last July, North Korea seemed to briefly admit that COVID-19 might have entered its borders. State media blamed a North Korean "runaway" who had fled for South Korea but returned to the North.

North Korea said the man was "suspected to have been infected with the vicious virus" but later said his COVID-19 test results were "uncertain."