SEOUL, South Korea—North Korean leader Kim Jong Un lifted a lockdown in a major city near the border with South Korea where thousands had been quarantined for weeks over coronavirus worries, state media said Friday.
But Kim, during a key ruling party meeting on Thursday, also insisted the North will keep its borders shut and rejected any outside help as the country carries out an aggressive anti-virus campaign and rebuilds thousands of houses, roads, and bridges damaged by heavy rain and floods in recent weeks.
Pyongyangs official Korean Central News Agency also said Kim replaced Kim Jae Ryong as premier following an evaluation of the Cabinets economic performance and appointed Kim Tok Hun as his successor.
Entering the last year of an ambitious five-year national development plan, Kim Jong Un in December declared a “frontal breakthrough” against international sanctions while urging his nation to stay resilient in a struggle for economic self-reliance.
But experts say the COVID-19 crisis likely thwarted some of Kims major economic goals by forcing the country into a lockdown that shut the border with China—the Norths major ally and economic lifeline—and potentially hampered his ability to mobilize people for labor.
During Thursdays meeting, Kim said it was clear after three weeks of isolation measures and “scientific verification” that the virus situation in Kaesong was stable and expressed gratitude to residents for cooperating with the lockdown, KCNA reported.
Kim said his country now faces a dual challenge of fending off COVID-19 amid a worsening global pandemic and repairing damage from torrential rain that lashed the country in past weeks.
KCNA said 39,296 hectares (97,100 acres) of crops were ruined nationwide and 16,680 homes and 630 public buildings destroyed or flooded. It said many roads, bridges, and railway sections were damaged and a dam of an unspecified power station gave way. There was no mention of any information related to injuries or deaths.
Kim expressed sympathy with people who were at temporary facilities after losing their houses to floods and called for swift recovery efforts so that no one is “homeless” by the time the country celebrates the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers Partys founding on Oct. 10.
“The situation, in which the spread of the worldwide malignant virus has become worse, requires us not to allow any outside aid for the flood damage but shut the border tighter and carry out strict anti-epidemic work,” KCNA paraphrased Kim as saying.
Kims public rejection of international aid for flood recovery and his decision to release Kaesong from quarantine are negative indicators for inter-Korean cooperation as South Korea had hoped to restart diplomatic engagement by providing support in these areas, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
Cho Hey-sil, spokesperson of Seouls Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said the South remains willing to provide humanitarian assistance to the North.
North Korea in past months has severed virtually all cooperation with the South amid a stalemate in larger nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, which faltered over disagreements in exchanging sanctions relief and disarmament steps.
The North in June blew up an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, following months of frustration over Seouls unwillingness to defy U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons program and restart joint economic projects that would help the Norths broken economy.