North Korean leader Kim Jong Un urged officials to maintain alertness against the coronavirus, warning that complacency risked "unimaginable and irretrievable crisis," state media said Friday.
Despite the warning, Kim reaffirmed North Korea's claim to not have had a single case of COVID-19, telling a ruling party meeting Thursday that the country has "thoroughly prevented the inroad of the malignant virus" despite the worldwide health crisis.
Outsiders widely doubt North Korea escaped the pandemic entirely, given its poor health infrastructure and close trade and travel ties to China, where COVID-19 emerged late last year.
Describing its anti-virus efforts as a "matter of national existence," North Korea earlier this year shut down nearly all cross-border traffic, banned tourists and mobilized health workers to quarantine anyone with similar symptoms to the disease.
Experts say the country's self-imposed lockdown is hurting an economy already battered by stringent U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile program.
The Korean Central News Agency said Kim during the politburo meeting of the Workers' Party "stressed the need to maintain maximum alert without a slight self-complacence or relaxation" as the virus continues to spread in neighboring countries.
The agency said Kim sharply criticized inattentiveness among officials and violations of emergency anti-virus rules and warned that a "hasty relief of anti-epidemic measures will result in unimaginable and irretrievable crisis."
The North's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper published several photos of Kim at the meeting, which were the first state media images of him in weeks. Neither Kim nor the ruling party officials who participated were wearing masks.
Meanwhile, South Korea reported 63 new cases of COVID-19 as health authorities scramble to mobilize public health tools to the southwestern city of Gwangju, where an outbreak is growing.
Thirty-one of the new cases were from the Seoul area, and 13 were from the southeastern city of Daegu, both centers of earlier outbreaks. Six of the new cases came from Gwangju, which had one of the smallest caseloads among major South Korean cities before this week.
The municipal government has shut hundreds of schools and banned many large gatherings.
Neighboring provinces are providing dozens of hospital beds and planning to send medical personnel to help Gwangju.