Kim Jong-un is rushing to build a new hospital amid reports that scores of North Korean soldiers have succumbed to the coronavirus pandemic.
The secretive state continues to maintain that it has no confirmed cases of COVID-19, despite tens of thousands of cases in neighbouring China and South Korea.
Now, without acknowledging the escalating crisis, the dictator has ordered construction of a new hospital in the heart of Pyongyang.
In a speech detailed by state propaganda, the dictator insisted that the project was to celebrate 75 years since the ruling party was founded and had already been agreed at a meeting months ago.
A report of that meeting from the time, however, makes no mention of a hospital and sets out only the vague goal of “improving… public health”.
Kim Jong-un never acknowledged the pandemic directly in his speech, but he admitted the country faced its “harshest-ever internal and external situations”, a full transcript shows.
He also said it was “urgent” to “improve the health of the people” and warned that “conditions are bad and many difficulties lie ahead”.
He further demanded that the facility ready by the “earliest possible date” while warning builders not to cut corners.
Photos of the groundbreaking ceremony show that the hospital will be built close to the Workers’ Party Foundation Monument, near Pyongyang’s Taedong River.
General Robert Abrams, a commander of US Forces Korea, said it was unlikely that the hermit kingdom remained free of infection.
“It is a closed-off nation, so we can’t say emphatically that they have cases, but we’re fairly certain they do,” he said.
A source in the North’s military told South Korea’s Daily NK newspaper that 180 soldiers had already succumbed to the virus, with most deaths happening near to the closed border with China.
A further 3,700 soldiers were under quarantine, they added.
Meanwhile, a Seoul government official told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper that Kim Jong-un had fled Pyongyang to escape the virus, heading for Wonsan, a coastal resort town.