North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un pushed for officials to remain alert to COVID-19, saying that a quick relaxation of virus prevention measures could provoke an "unimaginable and irretrievable crisis," state media reported on Friday.
In a rare comment on the coronavirus, Kim said that his country's handling of the pandemic had been a "shining success," reiterating past claims by the country that it hasn't had a single case of the virus, state media KCNA reported.
The deadly coronavirus first emerged in neighboring China before sweeping through the rest of the world. It has now infected more than 10 million people, and killed more than 500,000 worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
"We have thoroughly prevented the inroad of the malignant virus and maintained a stable anti-epidemic situation despite the worldwide health crisis, which is a shining success achieved," Kim said in a statement carried by KCNA.
Outsiders widely doubt that cut-off North Korea escaped the pandemic entirely, given its poor health infrastructure and close trade and travel ties to China.
Kim made the comments during a politburo meeting of the Workers' Party, and several photos of him at the meeting were also published in the North's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper — the first state media images of him in weeks.
According to state media, Kim also sharply criticized inattentiveness among officials and violations of emergency anti-virus rules. He warned that a "hasty relief of anti-epidemic measures will result in unimaginable and irretrievable crisis," for the country.
Neither Kim nor the ruling party officials at the meeting wore masks.
According to the World Health Organization, North Korea's Ministry of Public Health said the country tested 922 people for the coronavirus as of June 19 and that all of the results were negative.
Earlier this year, North Korea also shut down nearly all cross-border traffic, banned tourists and mobilized health workers to quarantine anyone with similar symptoms to the coronavirus.
Kim's recent statement suggests North Korea's border closure with China, its biggest trading partner and economic pipeline, will likely continue despite the toll that it is taking on the already heavily sanctioned economy.
Earlier this month, tensions escalated between the communist country and neighboring South Korea, with the North dramatically demolishing an inter-Korean liaison office in a town on the border between the two.
The North also lashed out at North Korean defectors living in the South, for sending over propaganda leaflets and balloons into the demilitarized zone.
Kim's sister and trusted aide, Kim Yo Jong — who appears to have gained prominence in recent months — also threatened unspecified military action against the South but North Korean officials later appeared to back away from military action.
The two countries are still technically at war as their 1950-53 conflict ended without a peace treaty.