SEOUL – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has visited a national cemetery and handed out commemorative pistols to army officers, state media reported Monday, as he pushes to muster public support for efforts to contain a potential coronavirus outbreak.
On Sunday, North Korea said that Kim had put a city near the border with South Korea under lockdown and declared a state of emergency after a person with suspected COVID-19 symptoms was recently found there. If the person is diagnosed with the coronavirus, it would be North Korea's first officially confirmed case, though many outside experts believe the virus has already spread to the country.
The North's official Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim visited a cemetery on the outskirts of Pyongyang where Korean War dead are buried to mark the 67th anniversary of the end of the 1950-53 war. Kim laid a single rose and bowed before a big monument at the Fatherland Liberation War Martyrs Cemetery, according to KCNA. It didn’t say exactly when Kim went there.
A 1953 armistice that ended the war has yet to be replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula in a technical state of war. North Korea considers the armistice signing as a victory and often uses the anniversary as a chance to promote nationalism.
KCNA also reported that Kim gave “Paektusan” commemorative pistols, named after the sacred peak on the peninsula, to senior military officials during a ceremony Sunday marking the war anniversary. State media photos showed a beaming Kim, clad in his trademark dark suit, sitting while surrounded by army officers holding black pistols.
“The participants held high the pistols and made firm pledges to fight for Kim Jong Un at the cost of their lives,” KCNA reported.
Kim is in need of stronger internal unity as he struggles to withstand crippling U.S.-led sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, which forced him in January to close the North’s border with China, its biggest trading partner and aid benefactor.
While announcing the Kaesong city lockdown, North Korea’s state media reported that the suspected virus patient was a runway who had fled to South Korea three years ago before illegally slipping back to the North early last week.
Some experts say North Korea was aiming to hold South Korea responsible for a virus spread and apply more pressure on its rival. Others say the North may be trying to find an excuse to win anti-virus aid items from South Korea.
South Korean officials said their investigation into who crossed the border into the North has been narrowed to a single person. Without identifying who that person is, military spokesperson Kim Jun-rak told reporters Monday that a bag belonging to the person was found on a South Korean border island. Health official Yoon Taeho separately said that the person has never been listed as a virus patient in South Korea.
KCNA on Sunday quoted Kim as saying “the vicious virus” may have entered the North while urging the North Korean public to rally behind him to overcome “the present epidemic crisis.”
Monitoring groups and refugees from North Korea have been highly skeptical of the North’s claim that it has had no cases of the coronavirus because the country shares a long, porous border with China, where the virus is believed to have started late last year. Analysts say a virus outbreak in North Korea could cause a humanitarian disaster due to its wrecked health care system and lack of medical supplies.