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North Korea punishes officials for failing to contain coronavirus

North Korea is sentencing mid-tier government and ruling party officials to short jail or labor sentences for failing to stop COVID-19 from spreading in the country, which sources see as an effort to deflect blame from the country’s leaders for the sudden rise in cases.

North Korea is in a state of “maximum emergency” after revealing this month that the virus had begun to spread among participants of a large-scale military parade in late April.

Prior to that, Pyongyang had for more than two years denied that anyone in the country had contracted COVID-19, and the government could now lose face if people start to question how the virus could have spread to more than 3 million people in such a short amount of time.

Accusing officials of being corrupt or incompetent, blaming them for the pandemic, then punishing them, even lightly, allows officials higher up, including leader Kim Jong Un to shift responsibility away from them.

“At an official meeting held at the party committee building last week, a number of officials were punished for their failure to adhere to the emergency quarantine system. Among them were two managers who were one day late in locking down the workers’ dormitory at their production unit,” an official from the city of Chongjin in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service on Wednesday on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

Both managers were sent to “confinement” after they were brought on the stage and publicly criticized.

“The officials were locked up for three days,” the source said. “Since the implementation of the emergency quarantine system, these types of punishments are happening more often than before.”

Authorities were reluctant to release information to the public regarding the punishments, as they still want to protect the reputations and dignity of the officials, who belong to a class more privileged than those they supervise, the source said.

“Still, though, many of the officials are especially not happy with confinement. Two years ago they locked up a company official for five days. Feeling humiliated and insulted, he resigned the next day of his release, citing health concerns,” said the source.

“Being confined at the Social Security Department alongside criminals is such a petty way to punish someone for insufficient performance in their duties. Is it that the authorities can’t control the cadre of officials except in this old-fashioned way?” the source said.

Confining officials can also be a way to get them to push their workers to work harder to achieve the country’s economic goals, a company official in the northern province of Ryanggang told RFA.

“Authorities, who previously pointed out that last year’s economic goals were not quite met, have been ‘encouraging’ officials to live up to their roles and responsibilities through punishment,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“In April, officials were punished to three months of unpaid labor, including an official who failed to prevent an employee from smuggling, as well as several officials who failed to complete the spring land management mobilization task,” this source said.

“This month, organizations that were reported for failing to implement lockdown within their units and those officials who failed to mobilize their personnel for the housing construction task force in Hwasong, Pyongyang, were punished with confinement and unpaid labor,” the second source said.

Workers try to lessen the burden on their bosses who have been detained, knowing that the boss will shortly be released from jail, the second source explained.

“The workers negotiate with the Social Security Department to ensure that their superiors don’t eat meals provided by the detention center, and they deliver outside food for them. In addition, they urgently scramble to solve the problem that became a cause for punishment so that the locked up official can be released from the detention center as soon as possible,” the second source said.

“When the authorities lock up officials in charge of organizations and enterprises, their units do whatever it takes to solve their problems. So, it seems that the authorities are enjoying locking up officials in charge of organizations and enterprises. The general public does not appreciate the authorities’ way of motivating officials by insulting them,” said the second source.

The pandemic has heightened tensions in the country, the source said, quoting authorities as describing the campaign as “a test period to verify our patriotism and loyalty to our leader.”

“It’s a very tense atmosphere, like a state of war almost, so nobody dares to complain even if the authorities issue absurd policies or instructions,” the source added.

Though North Korea has acknowledged that the virus is spreading inside the country, it has only reported a handful of confirmed COVID-19 cases, which 38 North, a site that provides analysis on the country and is run by the U.S.-based Stimson Center think tank, attributed to insufficient testing capabilities.

Data published on the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center showed North Korea with only one confirmed COVID-19 case and six deaths as of Friday evening.

The country is, however, keeping track of numbers of people who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19.

About 3.3 million people have been hit by outbreaks of fever, 69 of whom have died, according to data based on the most recent reports from North Korean state media published by 38 North. Around 3 million are reported to have made recoveries, while 233,090 are undergoing treatment.

Translated by Claire Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.